There is a story of a young girl in a Sunday school class drawing a picture of the Nativity. Her teacher looked at it: there were Jesus, Mary and Joseph, an angel, shepherds and sheep … and a very fat man. The teacher asked ‘Who is he?’ and the girl replied ‘Oh, that’s Round John Virgin’.
The line is, of course, ‘round yon virgin mother and child’. In fact, the line is ‘All is bright round yon virgin mother and child’, but most people take too much time and breath after ‘bright’. There are two linguistics issues here, possibly reinforcing each other: misunderstanding the archaic word ‘yon’ (and the meaning of ‘virgin’), and running the /d/ of ‘round’ and the /j/ of ‘yon’ into /dʒ/. (Note that the IPA symbol /j/ stands for the English consonant sound ‘y’. The IPA symbol /y/ is something completely different.)
According to Google Ngram Viewer, ‘yon’ was more common than ‘yonder’ in the early 19th century. There was an upsurge in usage of ‘yon’ between 1840 and 1860, but that can’t be attributed to this hymn. While Joseph Mohr wrote Stille Nacht (in German) in 1818, it was not translated into English until 1859. Sure enough, there was a further upkick in usage in the 1860s, but since then usage has been falling. In fact, this hymn and the fossilised phrase ‘hither and yon’ are perhaps the only times it is used in standard English, though it may have survived longer in regional varieties of English. Interestingly, there is no word in Mohr’s original corresponding to ‘yon’. His line is ‘Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar’ which translates literally as ‘Just the faithful high holy pair’. Alternative translations of ‘nur’ are ‘the only’, ‘only’, ‘merely’, ‘simply’, ‘solely’ and ‘singly’ (all according to Google Translate).
I’m sure that many people don’t realise that the sound at the beginning of ‘John’ is actually two sounds put together. (I didn’t right through my years of schooling. I found out some time later when I started reading semi-seriously about linguistics.) It starts similarly to /d/ (as in ‘dear’) and finishes similarly to /ʒ/ (as in ‘vision‘), hence the IPA symbol of /dʒ/. But running together the /d/ of ‘round’ and the /j/ of ‘yon’ doesn’t make exactly the same sound. /j/ is pronounced with the back of the tongue raised towards the hard palate, whereas /ʒ/ is produced with the front of the tongue raised in the area behind the top teeth – at least in careful speech. In casual speech, the tongue often anticipates where it has to be next. For the vowel in ‘yon/John’, the tongue has to be further forward, so /dj/ in ‘round yon’ can easily become /dʒ/ in ‘roun John’. Similarly, in casual speech, the /d/ of ‘round’ and the /d/ of the ‘dʒ’ of ‘John’ often merge into one (the technical term for this is an ‘unreleased consonant’).
While researching this post, I came across references to a book and movie called ‘Olive, the other reindeer’ (that is, ‘all of the other reindeer’ from the song Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer), in which there is a character named ‘Round John Virgin’.
[PS While I was typing this, I accidentally typed ‘angle’ instead of ‘angel’ in the first paragraph. There is another story about the hymn sheet for a Christmas midnight service which included the hymn ‘Hark! the herald angles sing’ (some angles are acute, some are obtuse, and some are just right!), but that falls into the category of ‘typographical error’. There are also deliberate parodies, such as ‘While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated on the ground’. When I was young there was a boy at church named ‘Rory’, so of course the next two lines became ‘An angel of the Lord came down, and Rory shone around’.]