December 25, 2006

Merry... umm... Christmas, Will!

I think I heard a sociolinguistically rather neat piece of linguistic education take place on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday yesterday, Christmas Eve. I don't think it was scripted. Host Andrea Seabrook welcomed Will Shortz to the weekly word puzzle spot with a cheery "Happy Holidays", using what is increasingly thought to be the safe alternative to any politically risky Yuletide allusion. But Will responded in his calm voice with "Merry Christmas."

So then they announced the answer to the previous week's puzzle that young Bakovic got wrong (boy, was he getting the finger-pointing and whispering treatment around LLP this week!), and they did the on-air puzzle session, and Will announced the puzzle for next week, and it was time to say goodbye; and Andrea seemed to have been educated in the intervening minutes, because as she said goodbye she wished Will a "Merry Christmas"!

If she was initially avoiding mention of Christmas, I don't think she had it right. Amid all the appalling things that go on around the world in the name of religious intolerance these days, I really I don't think we need to keep it on our worry list that people might be offended by "Merry Christmas" (or "Happy Christmas"). For heaven's sake (oops! can I say "heaven" without offending you?), if you're concerned about religious freedom all of a sudden, put a Jewish friend up for membership at your golf club. Or send a letter of outrage to a real fan of unAmerican religious intolerance like the repellent Virgil Goode.

A friendly conventionalized Christmas greeting shouldn't ruin someone's day if they happen not to be of a religion that celebrates it. Not even if, like my sister-in-law, they happen to belong to the Jehovah's Witnesses and thus aren't religiously permitted to celebrate Christmas at all. (Since Barbara and I know about Sharon's religion, we simply don't express any specifically Christmas wishes to her or give her presents on the day; but if people who don't know about her religion say "Merry Christmas" to her she doesn't fly into a rage or anything.)

From Language Log Plaza, where you can put up a Christmas tree in the ground-floor lobby, or a menorah, or a whole nativity scene with live farm animals, or any other decoration that pleases you, as long as you respect the fire code and clean up after the animals, I wish you a merry Christmas.

[Non-relevant endnote: By the way, when Will Shortz made his remark that troop / troops (young Eric's answer) was not going to cut it, Will said they were "essentially the same word". What he really wanted was the term lexeme. But he didn't have the terminology at his fingertips, and only his Language Log-reading listeners would have understood it anyway. Knowing what a lexeme is stands in relation to knowledge of linguistics roughly as knowing what inflation is stands in relation to knowledge of economics. But while general knowledge is taken to include basic economics, it is not taken to include basic linguistics.]

Update: People have written to me about the above remarks, of course. And they say very sensible things. One said:

I am Jewish. Merry Christmas doesn't offend me. People assuming that the whole world is Christan does. I understand that statistically you have a good chance of getting it right with "Merry Christmas" and that many see "Happy Holidays" as a lame politically correct alternative. And, I truly appreciate the heartfelt warm wishes intended by the greeting. However, I honestly believe that many folks wish me a merry Christmas without ever pausing to realize that I might not be Christan. That is why I dislike it when strangers go around wishing me -- and each other -- a merry Christmas. Please don't assume that everyone is celebrating the same holidays as you. For me, today (Christmas) is just another day.

Enjoy the holidays...

And another correspondent said:

In regards to your Dec. 25 Language Log post, I'd like to raise the idea that perhaps the "education" going on in Weekend Edition was not "It is always in good taste to wish people of unknown religion 'Merry Christmas.'" Reading your account of what happened, it occurs to me that Ms. Seabrook could have been educated about Mr. Shortz's religion, based on the latter's "Merry Christmas" comment, making her use of "Merry Christmas" at parting more surely appropriate.

As a non-Christian, though wishes of "Merry Christmas" do not ruin my day, they are subtly alienating. I know others who share my feelings. Some people are sensitive to this fact, and I see no reason to make fun of these people.


I take these sentiments and other similar ones very seriously. But let me repeat, this is not about being Christian: my sister-in-law is a Christian; but she is of the Jehovah's Witness sect, which is forbidden to make any celebratory mention of Christmas or even accept gifts on that day. This is about a very common conventional greeting that derives from times centuries ago when it could be assumed that everyone was celebrating the same Christian holiday. Today this greeting neither implies that the utterer is a Christian nor presupposes that the person greeted is.

I do agree, of course, about the danger of sliding over from mockery of silly excesses of political correctness into chastisement of people who are only trying to be cautious and respectful in their dealings with others. I do not want to follow the media nasties (you know who they are) who seem so happy to complete that slide. The praiseworthy efforts that liberals make to show genuine sensibility to religious diversity are not to be parlayed into further evidence that liberals are traitors.

However, what I would like to see is expression of true sensibility to religious diversity, not irrational worrying over imaginary offense caused by unthinking repetition of Christmas greeting clichés. Let's be serious about challenging religious intolerance. Let's not divert our energies into establishing pointless linguistic taboos.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 25, 2006 03:44 PM