Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

Valentine’s Day isn’t just a hoary myth woven from thin air

Tomorrow, February 14, is Valentine’s Day, so I’m yielding to the temptation of posting in the Forum an atmosphere piece I wrote in 2004 at about this time for my column in The Manila Times, “The real score about Valentine’s Day.” Of course, I perfectly understand that there’s absolutely no need to explain the vocabulary, grammar, and semantics of love, for we should all be intimately familiar with them by now. As for the genesis of and rationale for Valentine’s Day, however, I’m sure that most people—like me at the start—only have the vaguest idea. So I decided to look deeper into the matter to see if St. Valentine and Valentine’s Day are simply myths woven from thin air by divinely inspired clerics or by lovestruck couples and love triangles, or perhaps just a clever marketing pitch by commercial interests out to make a fast buck from the lovers, the lovelorn, and the loveless—in sum, from all of us.

What I found out about Valentine’s Day, however, is something more elemental, more germinal, and more intriguing than I had ever imagined, and I couldn’t wait to share it with Forum members—before Valentine’s Day whizzes past us and leaves us breathless and pining for one more round of it next time next year.

So here’s my essay about my findings about Valentine’s Day…

Click on the title below to read the essay.

The real score about Valentine’s Day

“If you must write about Valentine’s Day,” my wife Leonor admonished me the other day, “don’t be a spoilsport. By all means take a break from your grammar columns, but don’t try to take away the romance from Valentine’s.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Leonor,” I said, “I won’t be a spoilsport. Why would I want to do that? On the contrary, I want to tell lovers all over the world that they are right on target in doing the things they do on Valentine’s Day. I mean, you know, exchanging love tokens, whispering sweet nothings, having dinner by candlelight—good, old romance the way it should be.”

“Then you’ve got nothing really new to say,” she said. “You’ll just recycle the same old story that everybody recycles this time of year.”

“Not with this one, Leonor. I have a new thesis: that people should thank their lucky stars they can celebrate Valentine’s Day not so different from how the ancient Romans did it. As you know, those people started it all almost a thousand years before the Christian evangelists came to Europe. They had this much-awaited love festival on February 14, precisely the same day as today’s Valentine’s Day. It went by another name, of course. They called it the Lupercalia.”

“Umm...interesting,” Leonor said. “Tell me more about it.”

“The Lupercalia, in plain English, was the ‘Feast of the Wolf-God.’ It was an ancient fertility rite in honor of a god who protected sheep from the wolves. Its high point was a mating game, a lottery for young, unmarried men and women. The organizers would write the names of qualified, interested women on small pieces of parchment, then drop them into a big vase. Each qualified male drew one piece from the vase, and the woman whose name was on that piece became his date or ‘steady’ for one whole year.”

“That simple? Unacquainted couples were paired with no courtship, no legal and religious mumbo-jumbo?”

“Yes, Leonor, and they had a whole year to find out if they were temperamentally and sexually compatible. If they were, of course, they married and raised a family.”

“How wonderfully uncomplicated, but how unromantic! And my heart bleeds for the young couples that had an eye for each other beforehand. With, say, 1,000 women’s names in that lottery, the probability of a woman getting picked by a man she already liked would be next to zilch; so were the chances of a young man picking the woman he really liked. And the chances of a mutually attracted pair being mated? That’s 1/1,000 multiplied by 1/1,000 or one in a million, right?”

“Right, Leonor! A priori romances simply couldn’t bloom unless the partners decided to mutually violate the rules. But there was one good thing going for that lottery, I think: it leveled the playing field for love and procreation. It must have exquisitely churned and enriched the gene pool of the ancient Romans.”

“Maybe so, but don’t you think their ritual was so elemental, so...shall we say, ‘uncivilized’?”

“That’s saying it mildly, Leonor. It scandalized the early Christian missionaries. They found it decadent, immoral, and, of course, unchristian. So they tried to change it by frying it with its own fat, so to speak.”


“Well, the clerics simply revoked the practice of writing the names of young, unmarried women on the pieces of parchment. They wrote on them the names of the Christian saints instead. And you know what they offered to the young, unmarried man who picked the name of a particular saint?”


“The privilege of emulating the virtues of that saint for one whole year.”

“What spoilsports, those clerics! Why would any sensible lover whether male or female want to play that sort of game? For Pete’s sake, that lottery was for love and romance and chance encounters, not for sainthood!”

“That’s right, so the Romans resisted the new mechanics and stuck to the old. It was two centuries before the evangelists again tried to stamp out the Lupercalia in a big way. In 490 A.D., Pope Gelasius canonized a Roman by the name of Valentine. He was, by tradition, a priest martyred 220 years before for violating a ban on performing marriages during wartime. Valentine was stoned to death on a February 14, Lupercalia Day, so his feast day was conveniently made to coincide with it. In a sense, the clerics finally succeeded in Christianizing the ancient rites, but only in name and only edgewise, in a manner of speaking. As history would prove, no power on earth could stamp out its earthly and earthy attractions.”

‘You’ve got a lovely story there,” Leonor said, “and you kept your promise of not being a spoilsport. So Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!”

“For you, Leonor, Happy Lupercle’s Day just this once, OK?” (February 13, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 13, 2004 issue of The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 145 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

The noun-to-verb conversion syndrome

One major word-formation process in English is to use the noun itself as a verb to express the action conveyed or implied by the noun, without changing the form of the noun in any way. This direct noun-to-verb conversion, one of the so-called “zero derivation” processes in linguistics, has been taking place since language began. It has given English such basic action verbs as “eye” to mean “to watch or study closely,” “nose” to mean “to search impertinently,” “face” to mean “to deal with straightforwardly,” “mouth” to mean “to talk in a pompous way,” “elbow” to mean “to shove aside,” and “stomach” to mean “to bear without overt resentment.” Rather than come up with a new word for the action that a body part typically can do literally or figuratively, English speakers simply made that body part stand for the action itself; later on, they did the same for tools, machines, and technologies. It has been estimated that by this process, something like one-fifth of all English verbs had been formed from nouns.

Creating verbs this way, which is facetiously called “nerbing” by some language observers, is particularly tempting in English because it saves time for the speaker or writer and simplifies sentence construction. For instance, rather than saying “She made a catalogue of the books,” we can use the noun “catalogue” as the verb itself, knock off the verb “made,” and say “She catalogued the books” instead. In the same token, rather than saying “The wealthy couple served as parents for the orphan until she reached legal age,” we can use the noun “parent” as the verb, drop the verb “served,” and say “The wealthy couple parented the orphan until she reached legal age.” A bonus in both cases is that aside from saving on words, the language is enriched by a new verb—a “nerb,” a synthetic term that we will use here simply for convenience.

Traditionally, jobs and the professions and occupations have been among the most prolific generators and users of English nerbs: “He mentored the student in the art of debating.” “She liaisoned with media for an entertainment company.” “He engineered the merger of the two companies.” “The unscrupulous accountant doctored the corporate books.” “The government legal counsel secretly lawyered for the powerful political family.”

Scientific, medical, and manufacturing processes have also tended to produce a generous share of nerbs: “We centrifuged the donor’s blood to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.” “The laboratory technician chromatographed the mixture for possible contaminants.” In this latter type of nerbs, the name of the machine is directly converted to a verb that describes its action, streamlining what would have been a longer phrase built around the verb “use” (as in “They used a centrifuge to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.”).

During the past few decades, of course, advances in information technology and computers became the richest and most frenetic source of “nerbs.” Totally new verbs grew out directly from the names of such new technologies as the telephone, photocopier, fax machine, and e-mail. Thus, practically all English speakers now use such highly efficient nerbing shortcuts as “They telephoned [phoned] me just now,” “She photocopied the contract,” “My assistant will fax you the document tonight,” and “I’ll e-mail you the file tomorrow.”

The developers of these new technologies themselves have been prodigiously creating nerbs to describe new technical procedures and processes: “You must firewall your computer to protect your system from hackers and spammers.” “Please refer to this manual to architect your new portal server-based dynamic workplace.” Management and industry have likewise been riding on this trend by using such nouns as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office” into verbs that some grammarians find deplorable, as in “They’ll conference out of town next week” and “She now offices at home for convenience.”

Some language observers fear that direct noun-to-verb conversion has become such a serious syndrome in English, one that promotes confusion instead of understanding among its users. As Sir Kingsley Amis, the late English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher, had observed about the phenomenon, “There are times when this sort of verb seems to be growing too fast for comfort, and one suspects that now may be such a time…[Such verbs] may be quicker to say, but then cutting your arm off will reduce your weight faster and more irreversibly than any diet or exercise.”

It is highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped, however, but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon. (December 05, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 5, 2005, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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