Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | July 22, 2010

Semantic Quibbling

I sent the following to Glenda and she suggested we open this discussion up. What do you think?

While the following article’s author made some very interesting points about lexicography in general, I disagree with all of the assertions about how close “celebrate” and “observe” are in the relevant sense. As I perceive it, a celebration has a more party-like atmosphere than an observance. So, while we may indeed “celebrate” and “observe” certain holidays, we aren’t doing it with the same strength of alcohol (metaphorically speaking).

I can understand the need for certain looped definitions–for example in the *Official Scrabble Dictionary*which also finds it necessary, to define simpler words by their less common part of speech or usage– but database capacity is a poor excuse for worse proofreading than mine.

Am I being too closed minded?
Of Celebrations, Observances, and Circular Definitions
July 21, 2010

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> 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.


  1. Judy,
    I re-read this and here’s my comment: the difference between the definitions is in the connotations, and connotations are very important to writers. My family celebrates Derby Day, but we do not solemnize it–we reserve solemnizing for weddings. We observe the celebratory fireworks of The Fourth of July, but we do not keep the ritual of putting out a flag. Think of it as spicing, if you’re a cook, or perhaps painting: what flavor do you want to impart to the reader, or what subtley of hue do you wish to convey?

  2. This time of the Jewish calendar is an example of the subtlety. Rosh Hashana, the Head of the Year is one of the two most solemn days of the year, yet we celebrate it as the birthday of the world. On the other hand, we observe Yom Kippur with even greater solemnity. Hadn’t through about it before, but both holidays are very solemn, yet the appropriate words are not interchangeable. Perhaps, your point again illustrated, Glenda.

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