July 12, 2006

Born on the 11th of July

Napfisk at No Dependencies wishes us a "Happy 11th of July", observing that

Today is our Flemish Community’s ‘national’ holiday, commemorating the Battle of the Golden Spurs. On 11 July 1302, a Flemish ad hoc militia of local nobles, townsmen and mercenaries beat the French army in a field outside of the town of Kortrijk. [...] The Flemish militia was largely made up of mobile foot soldiers that had the advantage of higher ground, soggy marshland and ditches. [...] The French cavalry nearly drowned, couldn’t retreat because of its own advancing infantry and finally fled in panic. [...]. After the event, the battle field is said to have been littered with the abandoned golden spurs of the French knights.

Despite this famous victory, "Two years later, the County of Flanders was soundly reintegrated in the French kingdom until it was passed on to Burgundy in the 15th century".

There's a linguistic hook in the beginning of this story. According the the Wikipedia article on De Guldensporenslag, the French were upset because

After being exiled from their homes by French troops, the citizens of Bruges went back to their own city and murdered every Frenchman they could find there on May 18 1302. They identified the French by asking them to pronounce a Dutch phrase, schild ende vriend (shield and friend). Everyone who had a problem pronouncing this shibboleth was killed.

However, as Alex Baumans explained to Bill Poser a couple of years ago ("Schild en vriend", 2/5/2004):

Alex Baumans writes from Flanders that this story, which I learned from my Belgian father, is a myth. There probably was some sort of password like this, but it couldn't have been schild en vriend. One reason is that schild didn't acquire the fricative [x] that makes it difficult for non-natives to say until much later and indeed still hasn't in some Flemish dialects. Another is that the enemy consisted not only of the French but of native speakers of Flemish who supported the French crown.

It seems that such shibboleth stories are often elaborated, if not completely made up. But there's a better-supported linguistic connection at the modern end of this story. I'm not sure how the Flemish refer to this newly-codified "national holiday" -- is it (the Dutch equivalent of) "the 11th of July", or is it "Golden Spurs Battle Day"? Either way, the choice is relevant to the recently current debate here in the U.S. about whether it's politically correct to refer to "Independence Day" as "the Fourth of July", and what using one term or the other might mean about your political principles.

Last week , Geoff Nunberg argued that using "Fourth of July" or "July Fourth" in place of "Independence Day" is not "just another assault on the spirit of American patriotism" ("George M. Cohan, call your office", July 5, 2006). Geoff gave three arguments: first, "Independence Day" is getting more common rather than less common, at least in the New York Times; second, it's "goofy" to think that "'real' holidays don't go simply by dates"; and third, polls show that "around 60 percent of Americans describe themselves as more patriotic than the average American, while fewer than 10 percent consider themselves to be less patriotic".

I have another piece of evidence to offer, though I'm not sure what it means about the trajectory of American patriotism. It's obvious that references to the date of the holiday -- whether expressed as "fourth of July", "4th of July", "July fourth", or "July 4th" -- will be much commoner than references to random days of the year, and indeed 7/4 is referenced, one way or another, on about 30 times as many pages in Google's index as 6/4 is. What's more interesting to me is that in the name of the holiday, the "Xth of Month" form is so much enriched relative to the "Month Xth" form. In the case of the fourth days of June and August, the "Xth of Month" form provides only about four or five percent of the current web references, whereas for the fourth day of July, the "Xth of Month" form accounts for more than two thirds of the hits:

  Google Yahoo MSN (harmonic mean)
fourth|4th of June
June fourth|4th
fourth|4th of July
July fourth|4th
fourth|4th of August
August fourth|4th

Is this because of the influence of the popular song by George M. Cohan? It's not a general fact about commemorated dates -- the eleventh day of September is moving in the opposite direction, towards "September 11th" instead of "the 11th of September":

  Google Yahoo MSN (harmonic mean)
eleventh|11th of August 91.2K 73K 15,075  
August eleventh|11th 2.08M 1.17M 323,069  
DofM/(DofM+MD)% 4.2% 5.9% 4.5% 4.7%
eleventh|11th of September 236K 174K 41,465  
September eleventh|11th 18.6M 5.99M 1,434,502  
DofM/(DofM+MD)% 1.3% 2.8% 2.8% 2.0%
eleventh|11th of October 83.5K 74.7K 15,038  
October eleventh|11th 1.77M 1.15M 278,468  
DofM/(DofM+MD)% 4.5% 6.1% 5.1% 5.2%

Presumably this is because of the connection to the emergency number 911.

In any case, I take this as evidence that "Fourth of July" has become well established as an idiom in American English today, and therefore has taken on whatever idiomatic meanings its users associate with it. I have no doubt that these associations are mainly patriotic ones. In this context, to complain that the phrase "Fourth of July" fails to specify its patriotic occasion is like complaining that a red herring is not really a fish.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 12, 2006 07:05 AM