English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

To honor or to celebrate?

Q: Already this season, I’ve heard three people who ought to know better “celebrate” the retirement of treasured old guys. They meant to “honor” the guys, not “celebrate” their retirements. But maybe I’m the only one who notices.

A: For hundreds of years, the verb “celebrate” has meant to observe or acknowledge a significant event—such as a retirement—as well as to honor or praise someone or something.

In our opinion, not many people would construe the celebration of a retirement as a backhanded way of saying, “Good riddance. We’re better off without him.”

Readers can tell the difference between celebrating (that is, applauding) the overthrow of a tyrant in Mitteleuropa and celebrating (that is, publicly acknowledging) the retirement of a “treasured old guy” at the Booth School of Business.

The word “celebrate” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb celebrare, which originally meant to attend in great numbers, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says the Latin verb is also the source of such English words as “celebrity” (about 1380), “celebration” (1539), and “celebrant” (1839).

When “celebrate” first showed up in English in the mid-1500s, it meant (among other things) to observe with solemn rites or to honor with religious ceremonies.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible: “From euen to euen shall ye celebrate your Sabbath.”

In a little more than a century, however, writers were using “celebrate” for more secular observances.

In The Conquest of Granada, a 1672 play by Dryden, the King of the Moors says: “With pomp and Sports my Love I celebrate.”

Finally, here’s an updated example of the usage from the 1937 first edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

Celebrate, v.i., to drink in honour of an event or a person; hence, to drink joyously.”


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