Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Of Celebrations, Observances, and Circular Definitions

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, writes:

Recently on the Copyediting blog, I made a comment about Flag Day, saying we celebrated it rather than observed it. This was actually a follow-up to an earlier comment about Memorial Day, when I noted that it was to be observed rather than celebrated.

But I dashed off the comment about Flag Day too quickly; of course we observe Flag Day — it's just that Flag Day can be celebrated as well, whereas, at least in my book, certain holidays are not occasions for celebration.

It turns out that in some other books, though – specifically, Merriam-Webster's Online Unabridged Dictionary and the online Oxford English Dictionary — the line between celebration and observation is fuzzy at best.

In lexicography, the writing of circular definitions is, if not quite a cardinal sin, at least a Very Bad Thing. Circular definitions define one word with another word, and that word with the first, trapping the dictionary user in an endless loop. The worst examples tend to occur in pocket dictionaries, in which one discovers that, say, to try to do something is to attempt it and to attempt it is to try to do it.

But I've yet to find a dictionary in which some circular defining doesn't occur. It's a hazard of the process: dictionaries are written over time by many hands, and until relatively recently, as the use of databases for compilation has become widespread, it was very difficult indeed to check all the sets of related words and ensure that their members all made sense in relation to one another.

Thus in the OED we find the following definitions:

observe: To perform or celebrate duly or in a prescribed manner (a rite, ceremony, etc.); to mark or acknowledge (a festival, anniversary, etc.); = KEEP v. 12.

celebrate: To observe with solemn rites (a day, festival, season); to honour with religious ceremonies, festivities, or other observances (an event, occasion).

keep: To observe with due formality and in the prescribed manner (any religious rite, ceremony, service, feast, fast, or other occasion); to celebrate, solemnize.

solemnize: To dignify or honour by ceremonies; to celebrate or commemorate by special observances or with special formality....To hold, observe, perform, proclaim, etc., with some amount of ceremony or formality.

I cannot tell from these the differences between celebrating duly, observing with solemn rites, observing with due formality, and celebrating by special observances or with special formality. Merriam-Webster's Unabridged at least avoids using observe in its definition of celebrate; like the OED, it splits the term into the sense of honoring and the sense of engaging in festivities, though with a clearer distinction between the two:

celebrate: 2 a : to honor (as a holy day or feast day) by conducting or engaging in religious, commemorative, or other solemn ceremonies or by refraining from ordinary business b : to demonstrate grateful and happy satisfaction in (as an anniversary or event) by engaging in festivities, indulgence, merrymaking, or other similar deviation from accustomed routine

Celebrate was used in the definition of observe, along with solemnize:

observe: 4 : to celebrate or solemnize (as a ceremony, rite, or festival) after a customary or accepted form observed birthdays at home> <observe the Sabbath>

But since the first sense of celebrate is "to honor . . . with solemn ceremonies," this might be the sense that is meant rather than the "let's take a day off work and have a picnic" sense. And keep and solemnize both use observe:

keep: to observe or fulfill (something prescribed or obligatory)

solemnize: to hold, conduct, observe, or honor with due formal ceremony or solemn notice

Now, to be fair to my fellow lexicographers, we do have to pick basic, relatively unambiguous terms and use them repeatedly as a starting point in definitions. But the idea when one is confronted by a set of synonyms to differentiate is to choose the most basic term that all of them share, called the genus, and then provide differentiating information — the differentiae.

I think that the one thing we can glean from all of the above is that celebrate is the only term that unambiguously allows for the sense of engaging in festivities. That's why real speakers choose to say that we celebrate Mother's Day or Flag Day or, heck, Groundhog Day; some will say that we celebrate a day such as Memorial Day, too, but many editors will correct this use. To observe an occasion is to mark it by the performance of actions such as rituals or ceremonies; celebration may or may not be part of the observance. We celebrated the Fourth of July earlier this month; this year, public institutions (and at least some businesses!) observed the holiday on July 5 by being closed that day.


Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 21st 2010, 2:56 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Gleaned a lot! Thank you very much!
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 6:30 AM
Comment by: Jim P. (Frankston, TX)
Nice article. Thank you Ms. Nichols.
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Touché, and the dictionaries you cited should heed the advice. But since this is a matter of usage, rather than strictly a matter of definitions, I would look for usage notes in dictionaries, for usage guides, or even for collocations dictionaries in order to keep the nuances straight. Here is, for instance, Gardner's note on celebrant: "when a rite is for a sad occasion, it's better to avoid the word [...]. [...] Some people will consider celebrant in such a context offensive" (GMAU3, p. 140). (Gardner has no specific entries for celebrate or for observe in the context of festivals.)

To be fair to MW, their Unabridged dictionary has a helpful note on the differences among the words observe, keep, celebrate, commemorate and solemnize. The Ameican Heritage Dictionary has a similar note, but here is the lengthier MW note, quoted in full:

OBSERVE, CELEBRATE, SOLEMNIZE, COMMEMORATE: keep, along with others in this set, can mean the noticing or honoring of a day or occasion fittingly or duly. KEEP is rather mild in its implications and may suggest merely a customary or wonted notice without anything untoward or inappropriate; it implies opposition to break <his build was all compact, for force, well-knit ... he kept no Lent to make him meager -- John Masefield> OBSERVE may indicate a heightened solemnity, attention to correct details, and a proper attitude <knowing that the usual ritual would have to be observed -- T.B.Costain> <New Hampshire observes one holiday not possessed by any other state -- American Guide Series: New Hampshire> In today's English and especially in nonreligious contexts CELEBRATE is likely to suggest notice of an occasion by festivity or indulgence <celebrate New Year's Eve> <celebrating a friend's good fortune> <many parties celebrating a football victory> SOLEMNIZE is likely to carry a contrasting suggestion, that of grave dignity or splendid ceremony <mysterious rites were solemnized, and ... of those terrific idols some received such dismal service -- William Wordsworth> <this blessed day ever ... shall be kept festival: to solemnize this day the glorious sun stays in his course -- Shakespeare> COMMEMORATE stresses the idea of remembrance and suggests observance or ceremony, or a symbol or monument designed to ensure against forgetfulness and oblivion <the first time it had ever been rung to commemorate the death of a monarch -- New Yorker> <their six children all died in early youth, and the Bradleys determined to commemorate them by founding an educational institution -- Marie A. Kasten>.
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
PS: Sorry, but the HTML script removed all the usage examples provided by MW, since they were included within angular brackets. I won't clutter the comments section by reposting, but let me just note that each verb provided at least one sentence as a usage example.

[Fixed, using the &lt; and &gt; entities. —Ed.]
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Julie C
Let's throw "commemorate" into the mix too. During the 2005-07 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Indian tribes weren't fond of celebrating the exploration since it marked the beginning of fighting for their survival. Not exactly something to celebrate. Therefore, all of us involved in promoting the bicentennial used the word commemorate - an observance, and an opportunity to educate, but not a celebration.
Wednesday July 21st 2010, 5:00 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Thanks, Ed. The usage examples do make the point much clearer. Since you're on the subject, I suggest fixing a formatting glitch in Wendalyn's article. Note how the sentence beginning, "But since the first sense of celebrate [...]" butts against the cited definition, when it should stand apart, on a separate line and without indentation, until the colon opens up for a new quotation. I know this isn't lexicographically profound, but it does make the article more readable.

[Also fixed. Thanks, Anon! —Ed.]

Thursday July 22nd 2010, 12:10 AM
Comment by: Rodrigo B.
Wow! Your last sentence was pure genius(or was that genus), it clearly illustrates the difference between celebrations and observances. Who needs the OED, MW-UD when we can be entrapped by your knowledge. Gracias!

Rodrigo B

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