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Author Topic: No need to hold “celebrant” in a straightjacket  (Read 307 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: April 20, 2017, 08:07:14 AM »

The Philippines being a predominantly Roman Catholic country, 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 “celebrator” in that context 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.” By “celebrator,” of course, practically everybody uses it in the context of 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. (2010)

This essay, 697th of a series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the July 3, 2010 issue of The Manila Times, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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free_range_chicken
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« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2017, 11:38:58 AM »

Let me add Merriam-Webster's Learner's definition of celebrant to your list:

2 US : a person who celebrates something

Although the word celebrant is also acceptable in this context, it is not normally used by Americans or other native speakers in everyday situations. My relative used to ask, "Who's the celebrant?" or "Where's the celebrant?" until one of her colleagues "corrected" her, so she started to use celebrator:

Who's / Where's the celebrator?

However, Americans would normally use birthday boy/girl (colloquial) regardless of the age of the one celebrating. (The terms celebrant or celebrator is normally used in formal situations.)  

Who's birthday are we celebrating?
Where's the birthday girl?
« Last Edit: April 29, 2017, 11:43:03 AM by free_range_chicken » Logged
Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2017, 09:23:44 AM »

Thanks for sharing this insight about the usage of the word "celebrant" in the U.S. Actually, it looks like we in the Philippines are in the same boat as Americans in the continental U.S. who insist that "celebrant" is wrong usage and that it should be routinely corrected to "celebrator." I used to be "celebrant"-averse myself but I've learned to be more circumspect. I'm now able hold back the temptation to drub users of the word "celebrant" to refer to "birthday boys" and "birthday girls." Indeed, there's really no need to spoil a birthday party by bickering over the choice between "celebrator" and "celebrant"--unless, of course, a Roman Catholic priest among the guests forcefully insists that "celebrant" is his exclusive lexicographic preserve. (In the Philippines, if you must know, hardly anybody among the devout faithful openly tangles with priests on such matters. You might get a year in purgatory for your intransigence.)
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