Pages: [1]
Print
Author Topic: When words get boxed in for highly specialized usage  (Read 7294 times)
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3458


View Profile Email
« on: June 12, 2011, 05:52:26 PM »

Some English words get stigmatized through consensual misuse. They fall into disfavor because an altogether different denotation sticks to them, and rarely can they return to respectable usage after that. In the Philippines, in particular, one such word is the transitive verb “salvage.” It formally means “to rescue or save especially from wreckage or ruin,” of course, but in recent years, it has come to colloquial use in the exact opposite sense of “to kill or exterminate with impunity.” Considering how local media had seized on that meaning to dramatize their stories of organized murder and mayhem, I strongly doubt if “salvage” could still shed this unsavory denotation.

Then there are also English words that somehow get boxed in for specialized use. Among them is the noun “celebrant,” which has been appropriated in predominantly Christian or Roman Catholic countries to exclusively mean “a priest officiating the Holy Mass.” Woe to those who would dare to use “celebrant” to mean just anyone celebrating a birthday or some other personal  milestone! They would often be heckled as deficient in their English, then pointedly told that the correct word for that mere earthly observance is the noun “celebrator.”

In “No need to hold ‘celebrant’ in a straightjacket,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in the middle of last year, I argued that there’s really no legitimate and compelling reason why the word “celebrant” should be used solely as a religious term. This week, I am posting that essay in the Forum to see if there are enough people who will agree with me that “celebrant” ought to be democratized to allow for its use in secular contexts. (June 12, 2011)

No need to hold “celebrant” in a straightjacket

The Philippines being predominantly Roman Catholic, there’s a tendency for the supposedly English-savvy among us to scoff at people who describe as a “celebrant” someone celebrating a birthday or some other auspicious occasion. “Oh, no, that isn’t right!” they would often cut off and gleefully heckle the speaker. “The right word is ‘celebrator’; ‘celebrant’ means a priest officiating the Holy Mass!”

But are people who use “celebrant” in the context of just anybody celebrating really wrong? Do they really deserve all that heckling?

Although I don’t usually join the wicked ribbing that often follows, I myself used to think that people who call birthday celebrators “birthday celebrants” are—if not actually unsavvy in their English—at least ill-advised in doing so. Indeed, my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines “celebrant” as “one who celebrates; specifically the priest officiating the Eucharist.” Likewise, the Collins English Dictionary—Complete and Unabridged defines “celebrant” as “a person participating in a religious ceremony” and, in Christianity’s ecclesiastical terms, as “an officiating priest, esp at the Eucharist.”

On the authority of these two dictionaries, I had never really bothered to check the validity of the conventional wisdom that anybody who’s not a priest or cleric should never be called a “celebrant” but only a “celebrator.” “Celebrator,” of course, is used by practically everybody to mean someone observing or taking part in a notable occasion with festivities.

Recently, though, after witnessing yet another savage if good-natured ribbing of someone who used “celebrant” to describe a birthday celebrator, I decided that perhaps the issue was serious enough to look deeper into. I therefore resolved to check the usage with at least two other lexicographic authorities, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD).

The OED gives two definitions of “celebrant,” first as “a person who performs a rite, especially a priest at the Eucharist,” and, second, citing North American usage, as “a person who celebrates something.” For its part, the AHD primarily defines “celebrant” in essentially the same vein as the first OED definition, as (a) “A person who participates in a religious ceremony or rite”; (b) “A person who officiates at a religious or civil ceremony or rite, especially a wedding”; and (c) “In some Christian churches, the cleric officiating at the celebration of the Eucharist.” Like the OED, the AHD also makes a second definition of “celebrant” as “A participant in a celebration.”

Then the AHD goes one step further and makes the following usage note for “celebrant”: “Although ‘celebrant’ is most often used to describe an official participant in a religious ceremony or rite, a majority of the [AHD] Usage Panel accepted the use of ‘celebrant’ to mean ‘a participant in a celebration’ in an earlier survey. Still, while ‘New Year’s Eve celebrants’ may be an acceptable usage, ‘celebrator’ is an uncontroversial alternative in this more general sense.”

This being the case, I think people who use “celebrants” to describe people celebrating birthdays and other special occasions aren’t really wrong, and they certainly don’t deserve to be cut down and needled when using that word. And there’s no need for anyone to get upset either when called a “celebrant”—whether as principal or guest—during such occasions. I dare say that “celebrant” is as good a word as “celebrator” in such contexts, and except perhaps in the company of hidebound Christian fanatics, we need not hold the word “celebrant” in a straitjacket to describe only the Christian clergy doing their rituals.

In short, we can freely use “celebrators” to describe people celebrating or attending a birthday party or any other happy occasion, and I think the English-savvy among us need to get used to the idea that the usage of “celebrants” is actually par for the course and doesn’t deserve all that bashing as if it were bad English. (July 3, 2010)
-----------
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 3, 2010 © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: June 14, 2011, 07:21:09 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Alek
Initiate
*

Karma: +0/-0
Posts: 22


View Profile Email
« Reply #1 on: June 13, 2011, 11:27:17 AM »

"No need to hold “celebrant” in a straightjacket"

"...need not hold the word “celebrant” in a straitjacket"

I prefer "straitjacket" myself.    Despite the preponderance of Google hits for "straightjacket", "straitjacket" has purer origins.     (Once again proving that Google hits cannot be used as justification for legitimacy!)

Logged
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3458


View Profile Email
« Reply #2 on: June 13, 2011, 09:21:20 PM »

“Straightjacket” is far and away the most common spelling. Your preference for “straitjacket” definitely puts you in a tiny minority, Alek. “Straitjacket” may have purer origins, as you say, but I don’t see any reason why this should be the basis for giving preference to that spelling. Indeed, if lexicographic purity were to be the primary basis for the choice of spelling, the world probably would still be stuck with the old British English “musick” as the spelling for “music” and the old British English “publick” as the spelling for “public.” The American lexicographer Noah Webster may not have been a very likable fellow, but he sure did magnificent work simplifying and streamlining the spelling of English words. So let’s move on with the times, Alek, shan’t we?
Logged

Alek
Initiate
*

Karma: +0/-0
Posts: 22


View Profile Email
« Reply #3 on: June 14, 2011, 02:41:19 PM »

Hey, Joe, why are you asking me to move on with the times?   It was you who spelt "straitjacket" two different ways...!

But, seriously, it is a pity that so many lexicographers give way to spellings that are incorrect instead of defending the language.   

I have no quarrel with logical developments in spelling, but when so-called "developments" alter the roots of words, meanings become blurred.    Webster is often given credit for his streamlining of English spelling, but, in truth, he left the job half done.   Why didn't he change -ous suffixes to -us?    Why didn't he kill off the 'h' in words like 'character'?   Indeed, why didn't he chop the ..gh.. from straight, weight, etc.?

You should have a word with your maritime/mapping authority.    There is a stretch of water between two of your major islands; it is called the Mindoro STRAIT...!

Indeed, we live in straitened times.
Logged
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3458


View Profile Email
« Reply #4 on: June 14, 2011, 10:57:58 PM »

Alek, for you to fault Noah Webster for leaving the job of streamlining English spelling “half done” shows that you hardly know the vaulting ambition and monumental sweep of his proposed spelling innovations. If Webster had his way in everything he wanted done, and had he lived long enough to execute them, the spelling of English words—perhaps even the entire English lexicon—would probably be barely recognizable from what it is right now, with changes far beyond your suggested replacement of “-ous” suffixes with “-us” and knocking off of “h” from words like “character.”

To get a clearer idea of what I mean, Alek, I urge you to read Noah Webster’s very own words for his formal proposal in 1789, “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicality of Reforming the Mode of Spelling and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to Pronunciation.” Simply click the indicated link and share with Forum members what you think afterwards.
Logged

Alek
Initiate
*

Karma: +0/-0
Posts: 22


View Profile Email
« Reply #5 on: June 15, 2011, 03:26:15 PM »

My supposed lack of knowledge of Noah Webster is another presumption, is it not?

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the irascible gentleman's dictionary would have still been the runaway bestseller that it was, regardless of the "reforms" it contained.    It was first printed at a time of rampant nationalism, when "Americanism" was held (at least locally) as morally superior to European customs, and when imported dictionaries were prohibitively expensive.   In short, Webster produced and marketed a much-needed product at the right time and at the right price.

Webster lived long enough to expand on his "reforms", but such expansion was minimal.    Perhaps he (and others) realised that a complete reworking would result in a lexicon so bizarre that all the English that had gone before would become lost to us.    Among many, Mark Twain was aware of the dangers of "reform" when he satirically wrote:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.


By the way, I discovered another strait, Tables Strait (off the east coast of Mindoro) which again shows that the early mapping folk knew something about word roots.
Logged
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3458


View Profile Email
« Reply #6 on: June 15, 2011, 04:35:11 PM »

Terrific summation of what Noah Webster had set out to do about English spelling and what he managed to achieve! You sound much more knowledgeable now than in your previous dismissive posting about that irascible fellow. Congratulations, Alek! And let me add that your quote of Mark Twain on the dangers of drastically reforming English spelling was simply marvelous!

I was wondering though why you seem so fixated with the word “strait.” You’ve been harping about it since three or so postings ago, so I decided to check out the word with my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary to see why you put so much premium to it. Here’s what  MW says:

Quote
strait
Function: noun
Date: 14th century

1 a archaic   : a narrow space or passage b : a comparatively narrow passageway connecting two large bodies of water —  often used in plural but sing. in constr.  c : ISTHMUS
2 : a situation of perplexity or distress —  often used in plural  <in dire straits>
synonyms see JUNCTURE

So what’s the big deal about a noun that the lexicographers now deem archaic? If anything, this looks like the smoking gun for that word’s being altogether passé, and yet you seem to still take great pleasure in dragging its calcified carcass into the picture. What gives, Alek?
Logged

Alek
Initiate
*

Karma: +0/-0
Posts: 22


View Profile Email
« Reply #7 on: June 16, 2011, 03:34:23 PM »

What gives, as you put it, Joe, can  be summarised by your opening statement in this thread:  Some English words get stigmatized through consensual misuse.

The question then is, why do lexicographers fail to knock such misuse on the head?   English spelling is complex enough without permitting bastardised words to enter the language.

"Straightjacket" was probably invented by one or more people who, with breath-taking presumption and no knowlege of word roots, decided that "strait" was in error and needed correcting.    We should be grateful that "gait" and "trait" etc didn't receive the same high-handed treatment.    We should not be grateful for the habit of most lexicographers to grant legitimacy to offspring born out of grammatical wedlock.

Joe, I did a Carillo and exercised a Google count of "straitjacket" and "straightjacket".  Am I in a tiny minority?    A minority, yes; tiny, not at all!

I also looked up both words in the American Heritage Dictionary on line.   Bless it - the AHD gives short shrift to "straightjacket", dismissing it as a variant of "straitjacket".

I also noticed that, in  last week's cartoon, you state, "As a noun, 'taxi' means 'aircraft'."    I hope that this definition doesn't make it into any dictionaries.   See how you are...!

Logged
Joe Carillo
Administrator
Hero Member
*****

Karma: +52/-2
Posts: 3458


View Profile Email
« Reply #8 on: June 16, 2011, 05:11:56 PM »

Whoa, Alek! Your hope can no longer come to pass! The noun “taxi” in the sense of “aircraft” had already sneaked into the English lexicon. See what the Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary says about the word:

Quote
taxi

Function:  noun
Inflected Form: plural taxis  ; also taxies
Date: circa 1907

: TAXICAB;  also   : a similarly operated boat or aircraft

As to the AHD's King Canute-like defense of “straitjacket” as the linguistically purer word, I'm glad that you're not all by your lonesome being in the minority. Bless the AHD indeed!

Logged

Alek
Initiate
*

Karma: +0/-0
Posts: 22


View Profile Email
« Reply #9 on: June 16, 2011, 05:48:14 PM »

My opinion of the Merriam-Webster has plummeted even further!
Logged
Pages: [1]
Print
Jump to: