Friday, December 31, 2010

Settling the often-derided usage of “celebrant” once and for all

Today, January 1, being the birthday of the Year 2011 in the Western world, perhaps it’s a good time to resolve the frequently derided usage of “celebrant” when referring to someone holding a birthday party or marking some other personal milestone. I know, of course, that most people think that “celebrant” is a wrong word choice and that “celebrator” is the only correct usage—but is this conventional wisdom really wise and sustainable?
I wrote an essay about the subject last July in my English-usage column for The Manila Times after attending a birthday party where someone who had called the birthday party host a “celebrant” was savagely if good-naturedly excoriated for his word choice. I thought of posting that essay, “No need to hold ‘celebrant’ in a straightjacket,” in this week’s edition of the Forum in the hope of helping settle this long-standing word-usage issue once and for all. 

I wish everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year! (January 1, 2011) 

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 the word “celebrant” 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 the birthday party host, 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 © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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