English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Mixed marriage: two ways to wed

Q: Should one officiate a wedding or officiate at a wedding? Or is either fine? Using it as a transitive verb sounds odd to me.

A: The verb “officiate” has been used both transitively (with a direct object, as in “officiate the wedding”) and intransitively (without the object, as in “officiate at the wedding”) since it appeared in the 17th century. But the intransitive usage was long considered the traditional form, and was much more common until the late 20th century.

Today, dictionaries of American English recognize both the transitive and intransitive uses of “officiate” as standard. Dictionaries of British English recognize only the intransitive usage.

The transitive usage is especially popular in the US in reference to officiating in sports and in marriages performed by friends or relatives ordained online., an American dictionary, has nearly identical definitions for “officiate” used intransitively and transitively in senses related to performing a ceremony, serving in an official capacity, or acting as an official at a sporting contest.

M-W has “officiate at a wedding” as an intransitive example, and has these transitive examples: “Two referees officiated the hockey game” … “The bishop officiated the memorial Mass.”

The verb is defined similarly in the Oxford New American Dictionary and, an updated online dictionary based mainly on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. (American Heritage describes the transitive sense as a usage problem, but bases that view on a 1997 survey of the AH usage panel and may not reflect recent developments in American English.)

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that both senses are now equally popular in American English. The intransitive use doesn’t register at all in a search of British English.

Getting back to your question, the transitive usage also sounds unnatural to us, and we don’t use it. But as language commentators, we accept the view of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“Let us assure you that officiate can be used transitively to mean ‘to carry out (an official duty or function),’ ‘to serve as a leader or celebrant of (a ceremony),’ or ‘to administer the rules of (a game or sport) esp. as a referee or umpire.’ ”

As for the verb’s etymology, English adopted “officiate” in the early 17th century from two post-classical Latin terms: officiat-, the past participial stem of officiari (to perform a function), and officiare (to officiate, say mass, to serve a church, and so on), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the term first appeared in English, it was transitive and meant “to perform the duties of (an office, position, or place),” the OED says. Its first citation is from The Historie and Lives of the Kings of England (1615), by the English lawyer and historian  William Martyn:

“Because the Emperour intended to giue vnto her for her Dowrie, the Provinces of the Low Countries … his desire was, that forthwith shee might be sent thether to officiate the Protectorship of them in his absence.”

The dictionary says “officiate” soon took on the sense of performing a religious service or rite such as marriage, the use you’re asking about. The first Oxford citation for this sense uses “officiate” transitively, with a direct object preceding the verb:

“Deacons had the charge to … helpe the Priest in diuine Seruice (a place officiated now by our Parish Clerkes).” From Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), by the English poet and antiquary John Weever.

The intransitive use of this particular sense of “officiate” appeared a decade later: “There were many Parish Churches … as doth appeare by Epiphanius … who … tells us also who officiated in the same, as Presbyters.” From The Historie of Episcopacie (1642), by the Anglican clergyman and historian Peter Heylyn.

As we’ve said, the intransitive usage was predominant until the transitive form was revived in the late 20th century. Here’s a recent transitive example from a headline in Entertainment Weekly (Jan. 2, 2024): “Susan will officiate Gerry and Theresa’s ‘Golden Wedding.’ ”

And here’s an example from the website of  the Universal Life Church, which offers “Fast, Free, & Easy” ordinations to people who want to marry friends or relatives: “Get Ordained Online, Officiate A Wedding.”

The OED defines the sports sense of the verb “officiate” as “to act as a referee, umpire, or other official in a match or game.” The dictionary says the sports usage first appeared in the late 19th century.

The earliest Oxford citation is from a London newspaper that uses the term intransitively: “Mr. Walker officiated as referee, and Messrs. Davies and Bryan as umpires” (The Times, Sept. 15, 1884).

The transitive use of “officiate” in sports appeared a century later. The dictionary’s first example is from The Washington Post, May 24, 1978 (we’ve corrected the date):

“There was considerable comment when referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison selected Van Hellmond, Newell and Bob Myers to officiate the finals, passing up more senior referees.”

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