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I was looking through the original text of a popular nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book when noticed an expression whose meaning I can’t understand: “Yes, marry, have I”.

What does that expression mean? And speaking in general, does this text from the book issued in 1744 look archaic for modern English native speakers?

Baa, baa, black sheep,<br>Have you any wool?<br>Yes, *marry*, have I,<br>Three bags full;<br>One for my master,<br>And one for my dame,<br>And one for the little boy<br>Who lives in the lane.

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Three-X wool; that's the good stuff. :) – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Aug 1 '12 at 23:16
I've always known it as "Yes, sir. Yes, sir; three bags full". – Ste Aug 1 '12 at 23:17
I find it very hard to believe that this picture is from 1744. (Typesetting, font, the characters' body posture, the illustration style in general, four-color printing; and, also, relevant to this site: the "S" in "master".) It looks 1895-ish, or maybe... 1930s trying to be retro? – Alex P Aug 2 '12 at 2:28
@AlexP more likely a later reprint. I was more interested in the content itself. – Denis Aug 2 '12 at 2:51
The image is a page from Denslow's Mother Goose, published 1901, illustrated by William Wallace Denslow – Gareth Rees Aug 2 '12 at 11:41
up vote 21 down vote accepted

In this passage, marry¹ is not used as an oath or as a term of surprise; it is used as an interjection meaning “certainly”. Wiktionary gives definition “(obsolete) indeed!, in truth!; a term of asseveration”, and illustrates with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “I have chequed him for it, and the young lion repents; marry, not in ashes and sackcloth, but in new silk and old sack.”

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This is marry the interjection, which is originally a minced oath. According to OEtmD, the term is an obsolete corruption of the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Shakespeare was fond enough of marry used in this way – and also of the unminced oath by God’s Mother – that both appear in various glossaries of archaic words found in his plays.

A fair reading of the text would be:

Baa, baa, black sheep, / Have you any wool?
Yes, by Mary, have I, / Three bags full.

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This usage of marry is hopelessly obsolete. It's just an interjection (derived from The Virgin Mary, so you could call it a minced oath) that was used to express surprise - in this case, the sheep obviously would be surprised to be asked if he had any wool!

A more modern equivalent would be indeed. A much more modern one would be absolutely.

There's also archaic word-order, and I doubt you'd often hear "my master" today (even less "my dame"). In modern English (ignoring scansion issues) the reply would start

"Absolutely! I have three full bags!"

Also note that as a nursery rhyme today, the third line is invariably "Yes sir, yes sir", because no-one is interested in teaching their kids about that archaic use of marry.

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But teaching them the archaic use might be proficient toward their studies! – Phonics The Hedgehog Aug 2 '12 at 0:34
@Sonic The Hedgehog: We have enough trouble getting everyone to know current usage, never mind archaisms. Me, I'm far from convinced it was ever "correct" to "be proficient toward" anything - but if it ever was, I reckon it ain't so now. – FumbleFingers Aug 2 '12 at 2:16
And I've always known it as "who lives down the lane" as opposed to "in the lane" It's an interesting ngram at any rate. – Jim Aug 2 '12 at 2:58
@Jim: So have I, but both versions are "current English". The in the lane version is only odd because it's not the one we know, not because it's archaic. – FumbleFingers Aug 2 '12 at 11:34
I imagine that the O.P. may run into all sorts of archaic words and odd phrasings if he keeps studying nursery rhymes. For example, I like my peas porridge aged (about nine days should do the trick – leave it in the pot, thank you very much). Throw in a bit o' whey, then I'll settle down on my tuffet and – oh, drat! The dish ran away with the spoon! – J.R. Aug 5 '12 at 18:59

Only the one line that you pointed out looks archaic to me. "Marry" is an archaic interjection which was used as an exclamation of surprise or emphasis. "Have I" is just the switching around of the words. It would read, in modern English, "Yes, I have three bags full."

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