May 26, 2007


It's Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., and commemorating is on our minds (NOAD2, first definition for commemorate: "recall and show respect for (someone or something) in a ceremony").  Commemorating looks back, but on 5/22 in the NYT we have commemorating in advance:

Images from the covers of all seven Harry Potter adventures will appear on a set of postage stamps to be issued by the Royal Mail in Britain on July 17, commemorating the July 21 publication of the final volume of the J. K. Rowling stories about the boy wizard.

Yes, the stamps are being issued four days before the event they "commemorate".

(Hat tip to the blogger Empty Pockets.)

I can get partway from NOAD2's first definition to this use.  Here's the third definition:

mark (a significant event): the City of Boston commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America

And a couple of further instances of this use from the web:

The major museums of Europe, commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 (link) [announcement of a series of exhibitions of the art of the First World War]

This image is being released to commemorate the 14th anniversary of Hubble's launch on April 24, 1990 and its deployment from the space shuttle Discovery on ... (link)

What's being commemorated in these cases is, strictly speaking, the events of the past, but these events are linked to the present through an anniversary.  The crucial point is that announcements of these commemorative occasions can be made in advance of them.  Now we're one step away from using commemorate for occasions that mark, recognize, or celebrate events without regard to whether the celebratory occasions follow or precede the celebrated events -- one step away from bleaching out the temporal-sequence component of commemorate.

But why extend commemorate into new territory?  Why not use one of the available alternatives? 

The usual answer to such a question is that the writer didn't find any of the alternatives entirely satisfactory, and also found something attractive in the innovative use.  In  the commemorate case, some of the alternatives are bland: observe, mark, recognizeHonor might seem too deferential or solemn for the release of Harry Potter stamps, while celebrate might seem too festive and unserious for a Royal Mail action.  Commemorate hits the tone just about right, though at the cost of twisting the semantics some.

Actually, other reports of the Harry Potter stamps suggest that commemorate might be appropriate here.  You can google up a CBC report that says:

Britain's Royal Mail will issue 11 commemorative stamps to honour the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling just before the final volume of the series goes on sale.

In this version, what's being recognized is not just the last book in the series, but the book series as a whole; commemorative is not really inappropriate here.  (But in fact though the quote above is what Google reports in its page view, the actual page lacks the adjective commemorative.)

Still, commemorate 'recognize, observe, celebrate' seems to be reasonably frequent.  Here's another commemoration of an event to come:

Next week, the saga of Darth Vader continues with the release of Star Wars: Dark Lord... To commemorate this event, Del Rey Books has dispatched Darth Vader and his forces to a number of bookstores ...

and a couple of "commemorations" of regularly scheduled events:

People's Law School set for next week ... The School of Law historically participates in a variety of outreach activities to commemorate Law Day, which is May 1. (link)

MSU to help commemorate World Food Day next week.
Local speakers, presentations by area service agencies and a simple meal will be part of Mississippi State's observance of 2001 World Food Day. (link)

Semantic change marches on.  Meanwhile, we can commemorate Memorial Day on Monday.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 26, 2007 01:25 PM