Monday, June 13, 2011

When words get boxed in for highly specialized usage

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 “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 “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. (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.

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