December 24, 2005

L(a)ying snow

Some of the more antisocial neighbours near where we live did not bother to bestir themselves with a snow shovel the way we did after the big early snowfall that hit the Boston area on December 9. Their laziness, plus some partial meltings and re-freezings, has turned parts of the sidewalks between our Inman Square apartment and the Harvard/Radcliffe area into a treacherous glacier. The walk to the Radcliffe Institute that Barbara and I have to do each morning has become difficult and dangerous. We were surprised to learn from our friend Tom Lehrer at lunch yesterday that snow laziness is a famous cultural feature of Cambridge quite specifically. David T. W. McCord (Harvard class of ’21) used to write a column in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin called "The College Pump", and sometimes he would add in little verses to make columns fit. The verse he published on March 15, 1940, went like this:

In Boston when it snows at night
They clean it up by candle-light;
In Cambridge, quite the other way,
It snows and there they leave it lay.

But of course, that's one of the instances of lay that should have been lie, isn't it?

You knew that. You remember it from my advice column on the topic, which you understood in full and were not the slightest bit confused by. When Boston's weather spirits decide to lay down some snow and people leave it alone, they let it lie. (The construction leave it lie is unusual in modern Standard English; let it lie or leave it there are standard, but leave it lie is not.)

The snow lay there, crushed and frozen and slippery, until today's thaw, in fact. That occurrence of lay is OK, it's a preterite. Like the one in this Christmas carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even

There it's lay not lie because although it's intransitive the verb looked tells you we're in the past so you get the preterite of intransitive lie which looks exactly like the present of transitive lay (whereas the preterite of lay doesn't look like either lay or lie). Would I lie to you?

Merry Christmas!

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 24, 2005 06:28 PM