I was asked by one of my friends and cofounder of our performing arts guild to write an article about the difference between the words celebrant and celebrator. For some people, the words may seem synonymous, while some may not have even heard the word celebrator. In my case, I was a member of the latter class until mid-2006 when our Intensive English Grammar instructor taught the difference between them.
Most people use the phrase “birthday celebrant” to refer to people who celebrate their birthday. Now, is this correct or incorrect? Which word is more appropriate in this context, celebrant or celebrator?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines celebrant as “one who celebrates; specifically : the priest officiating at the Eucharist,” and Oxford Dictionaries Online defines the word as “a person who performs a rite, especially a priest at the Eucharist.” Both dictionaries define the word celebrator as “a person who partakes in a notable occasion marked with festivities.” Thus, from the definitions given above, we can safely assume that the appropriate word would the latter, making “birthday celebrator” as the correct phrase.
However, with number of people using the phrase “birthday celebrant” increasing, and this phrase has actually become the more common and accepted of the two, I decided to consult another authority in the field of lexicography, the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD gives four definitions for the word celebrant, which are:
a. A person who participates in a religious ceremony or rite.
b. A person who officiates at a religious or civil ceremony or rite, especially a wedding.
c. In some Christian churches, the cleric officiating at the celebration of the Eucharist.
2. A participant in a celebration.
AHD also took one step further and gave a note about its usage:
Celebrant originally referred to an official participant in a religious ceremony or rite. In the United States, celebrant developed an extended meaning: “a participant in a celebration,” as in The New Year’s Eve celebrants went wild at the stroke of midnight [italics added]. As far back as 1965, half of the Usage Panel [of AHD] accepted this extended sense, and over the years, the margin of approval by the Panel has increased. By 2006, 80 percent of the Panel accepted this usage.
With this said, it is also safe to assume that the phrase “birthday celebrant” is an accepted and established expression, to which also applies to other expressions, such as “anniversary celebrants” and the like. I guess it is the same with the expression “free gift”—of course, gifts are obviously free; but since this redundant phrase has become common and, eventually, accepted, it is now safe to use it. I dare say then that there should be no fuss over what is “more” correct between the two, one can use what one thinks is best and most comfortable for him as long as the other line understands the intended idea being conveyed.
To end this article, I will leave you with an excerpt from a newspaper column published a few years ago:
This being the case, I think people who use “celebrants” to describe people celebrating birthdays and other special occasions aren’t really wrong, and they certainly don’t deserve to be cut down and needled when using that word. And there’s no need for anyone to get upset either when called a “celebrant”—whether as principal or guest—during such occasions. I dare say that “celebrant” is as good a word as “celebrator” in such contexts, and except perhaps in the company of hidebound Christian fanatics, we need not hold the word “celebrant” in a straitjacket to describe only the Christian clergy doing their rituals.
In short, we can freely use “celebrators” to describe people celebrating or attending a birthday party or any other happy occasion, and I think the English-savvy among us need to get used to the idea that the usage of “celebrants” is actually par for the course and doesn’t deserve all that bashing as if it were bad English.
—Jose Carillo, The Manila Times, July 03, 2010
I sent a tweet to one of Merriam-Webster associate editors, Kory Stamper, about this “celebrant vs celebrator” issue, but she has not yet answered. I will update this article once she tweets her answer back. It is always better to ask people in higher authority to address such issues.
And just in case you are wondering where I got the authority to say that it is safe to say “free gift,” here, feast yer eyes!