Author Topic: Which is correct—birthday “celebrant” or “celebrator”?  (Read 94657 times)

Joe Carillo

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Which is correct—birthday “celebrant” or “celebrator”?
« on: September 24, 2010, 11:09:04 PM »
Question from reader Gerry B. (September 19, 2010):

I just want to know the correct or more appropriate word for a person who celebrates a birthday.  Is it “celebrant” or “celebrator?”  For me, I have switched to using “celebrator.”

My reply to Gerry:

You’ve made a well-advised switch from “celebrant” to “celebrator,” and I think that in the foreseeable future, your decision will shield you from a lot of ribbing and unjustified criticism from your associates and friends. But is “celebrant” really wrong and unacceptable usage? I wrote a column in The Manila Times last July 3 giving my views about this usage, and I am posting it below in support of the position I’ve taken.

No need to hold “celebrant” in a straightjacket

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 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)

A rejoinder from Gerry:

Thank you for your prompt reply and enlightening explanation on the use of “celebrant” and “celebrator.” Yesterday, one of my officemates questioned me for using “celebrators” instead of “celebrants” when our HR staff posted a list of birthday “celebrators” for the month. Well, I explained to him what I believed and knew was the correct one. And to make sure I had a basis in my answer, I consulted you later just to confirm my belief.
Thank you very much.  I really enjoy your Manila Times column and English Forum.  I have learned a lot from you.


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Re: Which is correct—birthday “celebrant” or “celebrator”?
« Reply #1 on: June 14, 2012, 11:31:53 AM »
This is exactly what I am looking for. Thank you for clearing this up. I'm writing an article about our employees celebrating their birthdays last May, and I am thinking of a good title for the article. I've been using "celebrant" and I once heard of someone telling me to use "celebrator". So I try to search it on Google to see which is the right word to use. So thanks again for enlightening me on this issue.


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