Ring the bells for matins, Brother Jake! (Photo: Taven Diorio on Unsplash)

I spend a lot of time thinking about mental flotsam and jetsam*, the junk we all have lodged permanently in our brains, but that we rarely stop to actually consider. And it turns out that if you do consider it, you start to notice how arbitrary and nonsensical much of it is.

This came up recently while I was trying to help my kid learn French. I sang her Frère Jacques, which we all know:

Frère Jacques / Frère Jacques
Dormez-vous? / Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! / Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong / Ding, dang, dong

Then, to help her understand what was going on, I sang her the English version:

Are you sleeping?  / Are you sleeping?
Brother John / Brother John
Morning bells are ringing! / Morning bells are ringing!
Ding, dang, dong / Ding, dang, dong

It was at this point that I realized that I’d made a huge mistake.

“Who is Brother John?” asked my kid, innocently.

Answering that question involved a long and complicated discussion about the existence of monasteries, which itself quickly turned into a discourse on religion for which I was fully unprepared in that moment.

There was a time, about four centuries ago, when Frère Jacques may have been a perfectly natural stock character for a children’s nursery rhyme. But today he is an outlandish interloper from a forgotten world.

And yet somehow he’s still here, right next to the Paw Patrol underwear and the Bluetooth-enabled white noise machine. It’s weird.

Having struggled through that little episode, I then tried to steer the conversation back to what I thought was the whole point of the exercise; learning what the French words meant in English. And there I ran into trouble again.

Have you spotted the problem? If not, I get it. I have sung this thing hundreds of times without realizing that whoever first translated it made a pretty big boo-boo.

Well, two, actually, but I’m inclined to forgive the first one. The French version of the English name “John” is just “Jean,” as in Jean Valjean. So to be perfectly accurate, “Frère Jacques” should have been translated as something more like “Brother Jake” or “Brother James.”

But that’s just stupid pedantry. Jacques sure sounds a whole lot like “Jack,” which has long been a diminutive for “John” in English, so I feel it’s pointless to argue. Besides, John comes a lot closer to rhyming with “dong” than James does.

No, the main problem is the fact that the protagonist of the story has a very different character in French than he does in English.

En français, the third line uses the imperative form sonnez. It’s a command, as in “get up and go ring those bells, Jacques!” There is a theory — probably an unprovable one — that the song originally emerged as a taunt for mocking friars of the Dominican order (known in France as Jacobins, hence Jacques) for their lifestyle, which was relatively luxurious compared with the more spartan Franciscan order.

But in English, the morning bells are already ringing. There’s no command here, just a gentle reminder of what that sound means, i.e. out of bed, sleepy-head. We never learn whose job it is to ring those bells, but clearly it’s not Brother John’s.

Here we see the contrast: John may have committed the sin of sloth, and probably has some confession to do, but that’s nothing compared to Jacques, who is not only lazy, but neglectful of his duty to the point of messing up the day’s schedule for everybody else in the abbey.

If you wanted to do a better translation, the third line in English should probably be something more like:

Ring the bells for matins! / Ring the bells for matins!

So why don’t we sing that? Well, maybe we did once. But as my experience with my kid showed, it’s tough enough having to explain who Brother John is without also needing to go into what matins are. I can’t blame the first tired parent who just sang “Morning bells are ringing” instead.

But what, I hear you asking, is your point? Are you saying that the next time we hear someone singing “Frère Jacques,” we should be quick to point out to them that #actually, they’re singing it all wrong?

Emphatically not. Sing it however you like, or don’t sing it at all. It’s just a nursery rhyme, for crying out loud.

But if you do choose to sing it, you might want to take just a moment to consider the bizarre series of coincidences by which this simple meme managed to find its way from one brain to another and survive — albeit battered, bruised and more than a little mangled — for as long as it has.

Sleepy and incompetent as he may be, Frère Jacques has weathered the centuries, including religious wars and revolutions that threatened to render him obsolete. He has travelled all over the world, even to places far separated from his original country, language and culture. His story, contained in just a few lines of doggerel, may be anachronistic, but it remains relatable, even universal. Who doesn’t want to stay in bed for just a few more minutes?

And when you start to think along these lines, you realize that almost everything is like that. Every superstition we follow, every fact that gets repeated at cocktail parties, every name or proverb or tradition has all kinds of hidden levels of meaning and mystery that we never think about, even while we continue to do our part to keep those memes alive.

Frère Jacques may be just a nursery rhyme, but it has a lot going on: linguistics, history, religion and even the mathematics of poetical meter. And I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface.

One of the truest things I’ve ever heard came from British TV and radio producer John Lloyd:

“Everything is interesting if you look at it long enough.”

Amen to that, Brother John.

*The idiom flotsam and jetsam itself is a case in point. We’ve all heard it, and most of us have said it many times without even thinking about what it means. But it turns out that each of those words has a specific meaning, with actual legal consequences for things like salvage operations. Flotsam refers to things that float to the surface after a shipwreck, whereas jetsam is anything that was intentionally “jettisoned” or thrown overboard to lighten the load before the ship sank.

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