December 17, 2007

Victims and etymology

A side point in my posting on 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 Became White (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 in, 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 his voice (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 goes Chinese.])

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, Joshua -- 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
Presidents Day
Memorial Day
Independence Day
Labor Day
Columbus Day
Veterans' Day
Thanksgiving Day
Christmas 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. use vacation ("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