Q&A: Celebrate or commemorate?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a celebration…

Q: Hi AWC. Is there a difference between “celebrate” and “commemorate”?

A: Yes.

Q: Okay, thanks. Goodbye.

A: Wait! Come back. 

Q: Oh, did you have more? 

A: Yes of course. Take a seat; put the kettle on; get comfy.

Q: Sure thing.

A: Both words are verbs, and it’s true that there is some overlap. For instance, Macquarie Dictionary lists its first meaning for “celebrate” as to observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities. And “celebrate” is often used in reference to a solemn ceremony, along with a religious mass.

Q: But usually it’s more ‘Kool & the Gang’ vibes, right?

A: Well yes, if there’s a party goin’ on right here, it’s definitely a celebration. But it wasn’t at first. The word arrived in the 1400s, initially just for religious ceremonies – in fact, that’s where “celebrant” also comes from, as someone who would deliver such religious celebrations. Both come from the Latin “celeber” meaning to come together in great numbers.

Q: So when did “celebrate” become more about balloons and bringing your good times and your laughter too?

A: Not until around the 1550s did it come to also include “demonstrations of joy”. 

Q: Waaait. Does “celebrity” also come from here?

A: It sure does. That word is even older than “celebrate” and was the original word to describe a solemn rite or ceremony. It ended up merging its Latin roots of “celebritatem” (meaning fame) and “celeber” (populous) to arrive at the concept of “celebrity” (being famous) around 1600. One particular person being called “a celebrity” didn’t happen until much later – the 1840s.

Q: Actually that’s a lot earlier than I would have thought. It feels like the concept of celebrities is fairly new.

A: Their idolisation has certainly become more and more extreme, but there have always been celebrated people throughout history. 

Q: Okay, so speaking of “celebrated”. Let’s get back to the question at hand. How does “commemorate” differ?

A: Well, the clue is in the word itself. It’s all about memories. Again, it’s from Latin, with the “com” referring to gathering together and “memorare” being to remind. The word “commemorate” arrived in English after “celebrate” – in the 1590s – initially just meaning a generic to call to remembrance. By the 1630s, this became more about “perpetuating the memory” of someone and it grew to include “things” (such as events or dates) around the 1760s.

Q: So how do I know which to choose in my writing?

A: Well, if it’s a joyous occasion, you’ll be going for “celebrate”. But as it becomes more solemn, especially if it involves the memory of someone or something – such as a war memorial – then you’ll likely be opting for “commemorate”.

Q: Examples?

A: “His funeral was a celebration of his life and they commemorated the occasion by planting a tree.” Note the implication of something that invokes the memory of someone or something – that’s when you’d be using commemorate.

Q: So we’d “celebrate” Christmas but “commemorate” Anzac Day?

A: That’s right. Even though “celebrate” did start its life in solemn ceremonies, “commemorate” does the heavy lifting for those sorts of occasions these days.

Q: What about Easter?

A: Good question. Christians are usually said to “celebrate” Easter. However, during Easter, they “commemorate” the death and resurrection of Jesus. So that’s a good example of honouring the memory of something alongside a more generic observance or celebration.

Q: I guess it can depend on who you talk to regarding whether something is a celebration or commemoration, right?

A: True. If you hate getting older, you might choose to commemorate your birthday! Or around the world, some national days are “celebrated” by some, but “commemorated” by others.

Q: One final question. Is “celebrate” related to “celibate”?

A: Nope. They may look similar, but of course the latter is pronounced “seller-bit”. It turned up from French and Latin in the early 1600s originally meaning “the state of being unmarried” – often used as a vow for religious clergy. Right through until the 20th century, to be “celibate” also meant that you were against marriage by choice – which resulted in bachelors who enjoyed a lot of um, horizontal fun, being described as “celibate”.

Q: Kind of the opposite of what people associate “celibate” with today!

A: Exactly. The idea of “abstaining from sexual relations” – as Macquarie defines it – is relatively new; only arriving in the 1950s, but now far more common a meaning than being unmarried.

Q: Looks like we’ve reached the end of another chat. I’m not sure whether to celebrate or commemorate.

A: We’ll let the reader decide!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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