Victims and etymology
A side point in my posting
Daniel Cassidy and how the Irish invented (American English)
slang is Cassidy's presentation of himself as a maligned victim,
unrecognized and disdained by the Anglo academic linguistic
establishment, especially that demon, the OED
-- a stance that makes him
appealing to (some) Irish-Americans and indeed to (some)
Irish-in-Ireland. After all, the Irish have legitimate historical
grievances against the English, so Cassidy can tap into them in
advancing his absurd etymologies.
Now that That Holiday is approaching, it's time to consider, once
again, victim-playing by fundamentalist Christians over people who avoid
the word Christmas
But first, Cassidy.
The Irish were badly treated (to put it mildly) by the English, and the
Irish in the U.S. fared poorly for a long time ("No Irish Need Apply"):
they didn't even count as "white" for some time, which is how we could
get a book entitled How the Irish
(Noel Ignatiev, 1996). There's plenty of room
for grievance here.
So you can understand Cassidy's in-your-face defiance. That
doesn't, however, lend credence to his etymological fantasies.
As for Christmas
, this topic
has come up every December for a while now. Two years ago on
Language Log, Geoff Pullum weighed
, mocking Jerry Falwell's claim that people who said "happy
holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" were "trying to steal Christmas"
and treating Christians with contempt.
Last year, Geoff Nunberg added
(this time the complainant was Bill O'Reilly, describing
the use of "happy holidays" as "insulting to Christian America"),
noting how bizarre it was for some Christians to insist that everyone
should be greeted in the way that they (these Christians) wanted.
Surely this is a kind of Christian triumphalism: why should store
clerks be obliged to treat everyone as if they were Christians?
[Stop! Don't write me about how Christmas, the holiday, really
isn't Christian; I'll get to that. I can't do everything at
once.] This is a religiously diverse society, so it makes sense
for people who engage random members of the public to use, if they
wish, neutral formulations of what they say; that's merely
polite. This is not necessarily a matter of avoiding
offense. I'm not OFFENDED
by the word Christmas
, or by the holiday
itself, though I no longer celebrate the holiday and get mightily
annoyed by people who insist that this is the most warm and wonderful
time of the year and I should get with the program.
(In a previous life, I celebrated the holiday in splendor. Why I
no longer do this is a possibly interesting story, but, frankly, it's
my business, and it's not relevant here. My point is that if I
now want to opt out of the Christmas scenario, that's my right.
I'm not lashing out at people who wish me "merry Christmas", nor do I
view those who wish me "happy holidays" as allies of some sort.
[As for the holiday itself, my current stance is that it's best
celebrated by a meal at a Jewish delicatessen or an excellent Chinese
restaurant. Since there's one of the latter a few blocks away
from my house and none of the former anywhere close, my little family
Summing up, as Geoff P. pointed out two years ago, the holiday of
Christmas has become, in the U.S. and U.K. at least, primarily a
commercial event, with its own customs, few of which have recognizable
connections to Christian beliefs or practices. (Note: "few of
which". Nativity scenes, for example, might give anyone
pause. As would the intensely Christian content of the Christmas
carols -- not "Christmas songs" -- that are everywhere in public during
the month or so before Christmas.)
The War on Christmas folks object to the removal of Christ from
Christmas. (If you're going to be an etymological Feinschmecker,
please note that Jesus
is a name -- cf. Jehoshua
-- while Christ
is a title or epithet.
Which is to say that if you're seriously into the Etymological Fallacy,
then insisting on the title Christ
and words related to it, is insisting that other people recognize Jesus
as "the anointed one", the Son of God and Our Lord.)
And now we get to 2007. Jon Lighter (on ADS-L, 12/1/07) reported
the latest episode of victomology and etymology, which I repeat here
with only minor editing:
Each year, Fox News's front-line
correspondents fan out across the world to report on the terrifying
"War on Christmas," as "the PC crowd" tries to intimidate Christians
into denying their God or Santa or something. Today they reported
the latest offender - Janet Napolitano, the elected governor of
Arizona, who described the state's Christmas tree as "the Holiday Tree."
To understand the social, political, and theological ramifications of
the Democrat governor's stance, one must turn to radio talk-show hosts
Inga somebody and somebody Ryan, who debated the nuances at some
length, Ryan saying that, as a Christian, he thinks people should call
their own tree whatever they want and forget about the issue. "Holiday
tree" is fine with him. (He must be closet PC). Inga, however, who is
presumably even more of a Christian, argued that a Christmas tree is
"definitely a secular symbol" because "I couldn't find any references
to a Christmas tree in the Bible." Therefore the secular governor
should have stayed strictly secular by calling the tree a "Christmas
tree." Follow me so far?
Inga then revealed that the governor was, in fact, illicitly mingling
church and state by using the "PC" terminology "holiday tree."
Why? So obvious! "Because 'holiday' means 'holy day,' she stated. Thus
the governor was trying to sneak her own (unidentified but
possibly "Secular Humanist") religious beliefs into the lighting
ceremony by declaring Christmas a "Holy Day." Follow me so far?
What distinguished this discussion from the usual level of political
debate in America was Inga somebody's brilliant observation that
"holiday" really means "holy day," an assertion somebody Ryan could not
refute, moot, or dispute. Like a deer in the headlights, he never dared
to say, "No, Inga. That's what it meant many centuries ago, but it
means that no longer. Wise up, troll."
I believe Inga's point was essentially to honor the Etymological
Fallacy. Keep it holy.
I'll content myself with noting that the United States currently has
ten "federal legal holidays" (when federal offces are closed, and your
bank probably is too):
New Year's Day
Martin Luther King Day
Exactly one of these, Christmas Day, is in any sense a "holy day", for
Christians or anyone else. Meanwhile, people in the U.K. can use holiday
where people in the U.S.
("go on holiday", the old "holiday camps", etc.). The holy in holiday
is at best the whiff of a
ghostly presence these days, and it can't be revived by people who
stamp their feet and insist that etymology is destiny.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 17, 2007 02:07 AM