On the last Monday in May, Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States. But wait: Is celebrated the right word? Would it be more appropriate to say Memorial Day is observed? Wendalyn Nichols, an experienced editor and lexicographer, guides us through this usage quandary.

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On the Copyediting blog, I once 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.

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Wendalyn Nichols is the editorial resources manager for the New York office of Cambridge University Press and was previously the editor of the Copyediting newsletter. 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.