Q: I recall reading that a tradition is a custom passed from one generation to the next. But I often hear people referring to customs (esp. within families) that are typically only a few years old, as in “We traditionally have pizza on Christmas Eve.”
A: How traditional is a tradition? Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “tradition” can refer to a long-established custom as well as one passed on from generation to generation.
However, “tradition” did indeed have the generational sense when the noun showed up in Middle English in the late 1300s.
At that time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a “belief, statement, custom, etc., handed down by non-written means (esp. word of mouth, or practice) from generation to generation.”
By the late 1500s, the dictionary says, the word was being used for “any practice or custom which is generally accepted and has been established for some time within a society, social group, etc. (in later use not necessarily one passed down from generation to generation).”
It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when a “tradition” came to mean any long-established custom, “not necessarily one passed down from generation to generation.”
It obviously occurred sometime between the dates for the oldest and newest examples of the word in the dictionary.
Here’s the OED’s earliest example: “Throw a way respect, / Tradition, forme, and ceremonious duetie,” from Shakespeare’s Richard II (1597).
And here’s the most recent: “The release in 1998 of The McGarrigle Hour … established an intermittent tradition of hootenanny-style get-togethers,” from the Jan. 20, 2010, issue of the Independent (London).
English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where a tradicion or tradition referred to the handing over of an object or the transmitting of an idea.
The Latin source of the word is the verb trādere (to hand over, deliver, or entrust), but the ultimate source is the reconstructed Indo-European root dō- (to give).
Why did a verb meaning to hand over or give inspire the noun “tradition”? Because etymologically, a tradition is something passed on, given, handed down.
Interestingly, “tradition” once meant a betrayal, but that sense is now considered obsolete or archaic.
When used in this negative way, the OED explains, “tradition” referred to “the action or an act of surrendering a person into the power of another; betrayal.”
The dictionary notes that the term was also used in the early Christian church in reference to the “surrender of sacred books and vessels to the Roman authorities in times of persecution, esp. during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian in the early 4th cent. a.d.”
However, the OED doesn’t have any Old English or Middle English citations for “tradition” used in the sense of surrendering a person or a sacred book, which suggests that the dictionary is referring here to the classical Latin or late Latin ancestors of “tradition.”
In classical Latin, a trāditor is a “traitor, betrayer,” according to Oxford, and in late Latin it’s a “person who hands over sacred books to their persecutors.”
And, yes, trādere (to hand over, give, entrust) is the classical Latin source of both “tradition” and “traitor.”