From a song called The Battle of Quebec:

Brave Wolfe drew up his men in a line so pretty
On the Plains of Abraham, before the city
The French came marching down
Arrayed to meet them
In double numbers 'round, resolved to beat them.

In double numbers obviously means that they were twice as many French soldiers as there were British soldiers. But how do you understand the 'round part?

  • My guess is this 'round is around and thus it can mean about (in the sense that it's not an exact number). – Damkerng T. Feb 8 '15 at 22:53
  • 1
    This question is going to get a lot of clicks from people who think that it’s related to data types … – Wrzlprmft Feb 9 '15 at 0:24

I agree with DamkerngT and A.Beth that round should be understood as around (as implied by the editorial spelling 'round) and suspect that it means that the French, with a much larger force, sought to envelop the British.

However: the fact is you cannot count on round here meaning anything in particular. This is not merely poetry but folk poetry—fundamentally oral poetry, meaning there is no fixed text but merely a 'skeletal' story in which the only fairly constant element is the rhymes. At least 22 different versions have been published, and probably at least as many recorded.

Brave Wolfe (the title under which this piece is usually known) is over 200 years old; it first appears in print sometime before 1813 when Isaiah Thomas (no, not the basketball player!) purchased from a Boston printer a bound collection of some 350 broadsheet ballads which included Brave Wolfe. That printer was probably Nathaniel Coverly, since about half the ballads bear his imprint, including that earliest version of Brave Wolfe. Coverly's version does not have the word round at all at that point; a hasty Google Books search doesn't find it in any printed version before the 20th century; and some versions field-collected in the 30s and 40s lack it, too.

Round seems therefore to be a fairly modern intrusion; and it's easy to see what prompted it. If you look closely at any of the many versions of this song, you will see that many of the couplets are actually quatrains with an ABAB rhyme scheme; for instance:

He landed at Quebec
  with all his party
The city to attack
  being brave and hearty

At some point in the last 100 years or so some performer added round to the double number couplet, to sustain that internal rhyme:

The French came marching down
  arrayed to meet them
In double numbers 'round,
  resolved to beat them.

But what exactly he meant is conjecture. The important thing is it sounds good.

Note that this song, which is widely known in the US and Canada, is an entirely different piece from the song of the same name which is just as widely known in England. Martin Carty has recorded both, and you may see representative lyrics of both songs here.

The same thing has happened to the little dialogue between Wolfe and his aide. In early versions it runs like this:

She’ll fall into our hands, with all her treasure.
O then reply’d brave Wolf, I die with pleasure.

A variant replaces the first of these lines with His aide-de-camp replied It's ending in our favour. But starting in the 1960s recorded versions employ a different couplet, with a different end rhyme

Quebec is all our own none can prevent it
Oh then, replies bold Wolfe, I die contented

Most interesting is a version recorded by Tom Kines, which changes the first part of the second line to create an internal rhyme in the same way round does in the double numbers line:

Quebec is all our own none can prevent it
He said without a groan, I die contented

  • Is what the performer meant really all that relevant? I understand the question to be about what 'round means in the English conventions of the day. Non? – Ben Kovitz Feb 9 '15 at 0:33
  • @BenKovitz Well, me and A.Beth agree that we understand it as around and that the context suggests one force surrounding the other. My little essay is intended to point out that there are reasons beyond meaning for a word's presence. – StoneyB Feb 9 '15 at 0:38
  • Ah, well I certainly concur, both with the interpretation as surrounding the British and the principle that the word-choice addresses pressures that have nothing to do with its meaning. As if that weren't enough, a +1 for pointing out the internal rhyme! (Where standards for rhyming are lower—yet another factor having nothing to do with meaning.) – Ben Kovitz Feb 9 '15 at 0:45

With the apostrophe at 'round, that pretty well guarantees that it means "around." This being poetry, it can be a little tricky. It could mean "about," as Damkerng T suggests in the comments there, or it could mean "surrounding." Personally, I would suspect "surrounding" -- that the French came down and made a half-circle around Wolfe's army, 'cause there were so many of them.

I could be entirely wrong, though, if "double numbers" doesn't mean "twice as many as Wolfe's army," but means some other army thing -- or some French thing, as I see that this is a translation! A translation of poetry is even trickier to explain, as the translator may make some interesting linguistic contortions to come up with a line that is A: close to what the original line was, and B: tries to be poetic itself.

Edit: I am informed that the poem -- as should not surprise me, considering Canada -- is in both languages, switching back and forth, and the stanzas aren't translations of each other. So at least there's not that trickiness. (It's still poetry, though, and may use words in unusual ways to keep to the poetical forms.)

EDIT TWICE: I forgot to mention that in British English, the word "round" will often mean "around," but not have the apostrophe. E.g., American English would write: "We went all 'round Robin Hood's barn" (a term for going a long and winding way to a place), while British English would write: "We went all round Robin Hood's barn," and you just have to know that's "around" from the context. (When I was doing editing, one of my best writers was from England, so I got to learn a lot of the quirks of grammar, spelling, and punctuation that are not shared between the countries.)

  • I'd be surprised to learn it's a translation; the Québécois would hardly have adopted a song celebrating a French defeat! But the song is so widely known I can easily see them adapting it. I'd be interested to see a pointer to a French version. – StoneyB Feb 9 '15 at 0:41
  • I edited my comment -- I don't speak French and didn't look hard enough for cognates. (Headache + small font + eye issues = not a thorough lookover.) Apparently the poem/song alternates languages for stanzas. – A.Beth Feb 9 '15 at 2:15
  • I am stupid - I just realized the link is in the question. The recording is a 'dialogue' between an English folksong and a French one. The French song tells of the capture, in the same year as the Battle of Quebec, of the French frigate La Danaé by the British frigate Southampton. The French vessel fought so heroically that when she was purchased into the British Navy the Admiralty permitted her to keep her name. In the final verse the captured seamen grumble "You impudent English could at least let us go home!" – StoneyB Feb 9 '15 at 4:48

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