Originally published February 15, 2016:
I know I start to sound like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory when I say this sort of thing, but the holiday we’re celebrating today is not named “Presidents’ Day,” it is “Washington’s Birthday Observance.” I’ve written before about how the myth that the holiday is President’s Day got started and why it is so persistent. I’ve also written about the reasons why there has never been a federal holiday dedicated to Lincoln.
But especially because of those racist reasons that have prevented a Federal holiday recognizing Lincoln, I think it’s important to remember that this holiday is not Presidents’ Day, unless you’re in one of the 10 states that have a state holiday this day which is called President’s Day (my state isn’t one of them). Five states still recognize a state holiday for Lincoln (Illinois, California, Connecticut, Missouri, and New York), though schools and state offices often remain open on that day.
And don’t get me started on the fact that because Washington’s Birthday Observance happens on the third Monday of February, George’s actual birthday, February 22, never lands on his Federal holiday. For shame!
…and here we are, seven years later, and three weeks ago said highway was finally closed. This week, the tunnel finally opened for traffic. Coincidentally on the first day of real winter weather we got this year. And then the process of taking down the unsafe structure—packing most of the rubble into a much older tunnel that, it turns out, is just as rickety as the old elevated highway and needs to just be filled and sealed—has finally begun.
I have found myself not just biting my tongue a lot reading commentary by some acquaintances about why, oh why, the ugly structure that hasn’t adequately served the region’s transportation needs for the last, oh, 50 years of its existence isn’t being replaced by something even bigger and uglier.
Fortunately, a friend has posted a much more reasoned and comprehensive explanation (and linked to an impressive number of pictures she took at the day this weekend the public was allowed to walk on the old elevated structure and through the new tunnel). So go read Dara’s take on this, including a really nice explanation of the why the highway became obsolete only a few years after being built: So long to the viaduct!
I’ve been listening to the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” since, I think, the very first broadcast. And it was while walking home from work one day many years ago, that I first heard a particular use of a word when a listener contestant described herself as a “gruntled postal worker.” She was a mail delivery person, driving a small mail truck around a rural community, and she said he loved her work. That self-description elicted laugher from the panel for a couple of reasons. First, a series of unfortunate workplace violence incidents beginning in the mid-80s in which angry post office employees violently attacked supervisors, co-workers and so forth, the phrase “disgruntled postal worker” and “going postal” had become colloquialisms used in describing workplace violence issues. Second, it sounded like a back-formation of an existing word. Disgruntled describes a state of ill-humor, moody dissatisfaction, or sulky discontent. And since the prefix dis– usually indicates a negation, then removing the syllable ought to reverse the meaning of the word, right?
Just look at that definition of disgruntled: dissatisfaction is the opposite of satisfaction and discontent is the opposite of content. It seems obvious.
But it’s not that simple.
Because discontent and dissatisfaction come to us from Latin and Latin-derived languages. In Latin dis- is, indeed a synonym for “not” or “bad” or “separate.” But disgruntled does not come to English by way of Latin. Disgruntled is based on an Old English word which in turn came from the Old Saxon word grunt meaning literally a low, short, gutteral sound. And the dis- in disgruntled also comes from Old Saxon, where it means “very or a large amount.” The Old English word that I alluded to above is gruntle, which was a verb meaning to make those gutteral sounds–literally to moan and groan. To be gruntled, then, meant to be in a mood or state that causes you to moan and groan with dissatisfaction, while to be disgruntled meant not just a little bit unhappy and cranky, but to be extremely unhappy.
It’s not surprising that modern English speakers aren’t familiar with the Old Saxon prefix, dis– , because digruntled is the only common English word in which that prefix still appears. Nearly every other English word beginning with the letters d i and s Derive from Latin. There are a few rare words we’ve swiped from Dutch and Turkish and the like which begin with those three letters and don’t mean “not-” something.
Disgruntled, then, can be thought of as an orphaned Saxon word—a sort of living fossil in the language, if you will. And there is one other such fossil word hiding in modern English among the dis-es. Distaff, meaning the female branch or side of a family, has also survived intact from Old English. However, the dis– in distaff has almost no relationship to the dis– in disgruntled. Because the Old English distaff didn’t come from Old Saxon, but rather from Middle Low German. In Middle Low German dise meant a bundle of flax. And the disestaff was a specially shaped stick that was used to wind lengths of flax or wool or similar fibers to keep them from tangling until they could be woven or knitted into a cloth or garment.
The rather sexist reason that the English word distaff now refers to the female side of a family or to the female realm is because winding thread or yarn and turning it into garments was considered women’s work. The word isn’t considered completely archaic at this point, but fortunately it isn’t a terrbbly common word, any longer. We could do with a bit less of the dominance of the patriarchy in our language.
Despite my explanation above about the original meaning of gruntle, you will not find me angrily lecturing people for misusing the word. Gruntled is a perfectly servicable colloquialism to refer to a feeling of happiness. And I strongly suspect that the humorous way people tend to use it means that it’s going to stick around for a while. And that’s a good thing. Because if gruntled continues to catch on, that increases the likelihood that the fossil disgruntled will avoid linguistic extinction for a while longer.
And I’ve always had a soft spot for fossils.
But one can’t credit Irving Berlin with the invention of the phrase, “Happy Holidays!” It’s been in use for more than 125 years, and was clearly not part of any attempt to secularize the holiday.
Happy holiday, happy holiday
While the merry bells keep ringing
May your ev’ry wish come true
Happy holiday, happy holiday
May the calendar keep bringing
Happy holidays to you
Most people point to Bill O’Reilly’s segment on December 7, 2004 about the so-called assault on Christmas as the origin of the myth. But you have to go much further than that, back to the 1920s, when in recurrent segment of industrialist Henry Ford’s newsweekly entitled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” which opined: “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth. People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.” Notice that even 97 years ago the American rightwing was antisemitic.
I was not alive back when Ford and others were trying to use Christmas to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment, but by the time of my childhood in the 1960s, that notion (along with the John Birch Society’s theory that the United Nations and Communists were trying take the Christ out of Christmas) had soaked deep into the psyche of evangelical fundamentalists. Though it took slightly different forms. I’ve written before about how the various Baptist churches my family attended considered Santa Claus an anti-Christian emblem. Some churches banned Christmas trees from the sanctuary, because of their pagan origins. Poinsettias were allowed because popular myth was the the red leaves represented Christ’s blood. But many of the common symbols of the holiday were believed inappropriate for the church.
Which isn’t to say that they forbade you from decorating your home and a tree or Santa — there was just a clear distinction between the sacred meaning of the holy day and the more general public celebration of the holidays. Which is why some leaders of the Christian Right in the 60s and 70s started advocating that Christians should encourage businesses to use phrases such as Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays precisely because all that commericialism shouldn’t be associated with Christ.
That’s right, there was a time when the very same sorts of people that today are foaming at the mouth about Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups not being sufficiently Christmas-y were asking businesses not to profane Christ’s name by labeling their products with the word Christmas.The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. It’s been popular across the political spectrum to lament the commercialization of Christmas for many years, for instance. But the funning thing is that this commercialization: the emphasis on exchanging gifts (specifically gifts for Children) are part of a puritanical push during the 19th Century to make the holiday family friendly. For most of its history, the Christmas season was associated with drinking and feasting and various kinds of wild partying. So the Victorians decided to wage a war on the previous forms of the holiday. Unlike the Puritans, who banned Christmas entirely when they set up their colonies in the U.S., the Victorian prudes at least understood that you couldn’t ban the celebration outright, but you could encourage people to observe it in a different way.
So the next time someone gripes about commercialization of Christmas, point out that little historical tidbit and watch their head explode.
I could ramble some more, but why not watch this video instead?
Adam Rules Everything- The Drunken, Pagan History of Christmas:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here
It’s a strange tale involving a hack writer’s bad grasp of history and half-baked sci fi sensibilites, rural American evangelicals’ even shakier grasp of history and science, a Mormon community invaded by mostly southern oil worker families, the tent revival epidemic of the 1800s, black lights and phosphorescent chalk, one queer sci fi nerd, and a three-piece suit the color of lime sherbet. It’s a bit convoluted… Read More…
During the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), the government of the state of Georgia had purchased a large amount of goods on credit from a merchant who lived in South Carolina by the name of Captain Robert Farquhar. At the end of the war, Georgia refused to pay the amount owed Captain Farquhar on the grounds that Farquhar had been a British Loyalist—not on the grounds that the supplies they received had been defective in any way, or that he had otherwise failed to deliver what he promised. It seemed to be nothing more than spite…
Grandma often called it by the older name, “Decoration Day.” Each spring, as May approached, Grandma would start making phone calls to distant friends and relatives, making sure that flowers would be placed on the graves of relatives in that area. She would also make plans for the graves of relatives that were within a reasonable drive of her home. During the days in the week before Memorial Day she would visit each of those graves and place flowers. If the particular relative in question had also been a war veteran, she would place a small U.S. flag along with the flowers.
The pastors in the Southern Baptist churches we attended might give a sermon on the last Sunday in May about the importance of turning grief into rejoicing because someone has been “taken home to be with the Lord.” There would be some mention of people who died in military service (often as part of one of the prayers, asking god to comfort the families of the fallen soldiers, airman, marines, and sailors), but it was seldom the primary focus of the sermon.
For most of my childhood, I understood that Memorial Day was a time for families to visit the graves of loved ones. It was about remembering anyone who had died. The fact that many people used the day to specifically remember and honor those who had died in battle seemed to be a subset of the larger goal of celebrating the lives of all your loved ones who had died.
Most of my grade school career occurred before the passage of the federal Uniform Monday Holiday Act, so Memorial Day landed on whatever day of the week May 30 was, and I don’t think we were usually let out of school to observe it. When the Monday Holiday Act went into effect, I remember a lot of grumbling from various adults in my life. One particular rant stood out: an older man at the church potluck in May started complaining about “Yankees taking a good, pro-family holiday and turning it into a pro-federalist celebration of war!” He was shushed by his wife before he got too far along.
I didn’t meet my first Radical Memorialist until High School. Someone made a comment about the big barbecue their parents were planning for the weekend, and another of my classmates went ballistic. Memorial Day was not supposed to be about parties and celebrations! It was a serious day to remember people “who gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep this country free!” Anyone who didn’t do that was ignorant and shallow at best, selfish and unpatriotic at worst.
I genuinely was stunned. This being in the Stone Age (before the advent of the internet), I had to look up Memorial Day in an Encyclopedia. And that’s when I first learned how the original Memorial Day had been observed in 1866 intended to honor “those fallen in battle defending their nation during the recent rebellion.” A decidedly northern perspective.
Before that time, many southern states had a tradition of a Decoration Sunday that sometimes happened in April, in other places in May, where the aim had been to put flowers on the graves of family members. Families would frequently have a picnic lunch in the graveyard or cemetery, telling stories and celebrating the lives of their dearly departed. These often turned into family reunions, because family members living far away would try to get home for Decoration Sunday.
Which is why for many years a few southern states didn’t recognize a state holiday of Memorial Day. Several of those that did recognize Memorial Day still also had a separate Confederate Memorial Day or Confederate Decoration Day, because even today in those places Memorial Day is seen by many as “pro-Union.”
Of course, the historical reality is more complicated than that original encyclopedia article I read. While the Civil War was still raging, groups of people, mostly women, in both the north and the south organized days to decorate graves of soldiers from both sides. There was a recognition of the common humanity of all the soldiers. Some people coordinated it with the existing Decoration Days, others did not.
When I saw certain people going off on rants this weekend, angry that there are people who don’t spend the entire three day weekend on the sober, solemn, and somber business of mourning fallen veterans, I felt conflicting emotions. Of course we should be grateful to the memories of the men and women who have died in battle, fighting in our name in various wars and conflicts around the world. Of course we should comfort grieving widows and widowers. We, as a nation, should take care of children bereft of a parent because of a war fought in our name. Of course we should do all of those things.
But being a jerk to people who don’t choose to do it precisely the same way and at precisely the same time as you? That isn’t something I can support.
Memorial Day in my family was always a day to honor the memories of people such as my great-grandparents: people I knew and loved and who are no longer with us. It was a time to call my maternal grandmother to hear about everyone she had contacted while arranging the flowers, to get news from distant relatives (many of whom I barely remembered). For the last several years I haven’t been able to do that part. Grandma died on the Friday before Memorial Day, 2007. She was putting flowers on the grave of one of my great-aunts. My step-grandfather was getting ready to take a picture, when Grandma looked up, said she didn’t feel good, and then she fell over, suffering a massive aneurism.
We realized the next Memorial Day that none of us knew how to contact everyone that Grandma always got hold of to make sure flowers were placed on the graves of my great-grandparents, or Great-great-Aunt Pearl, or several others of the more distant relatives. My aunt located a few. One of my cousins tracked down a few others. and all of us spend some time on this weekend thinking about Grandma, and all the ways she kept everyone connected.
I’ve spent other time this weekend thus far thinking of many people I have had the privilege of knowing and loving who are no longer with us. My two grandfathers and eight great-uncles who served in WWII among them. Rather than lament their loss, I think about the good things they did, and about the fun times we had together. Memorializing someone should be about celebrating their life. Not just weeping.
And it certainly shouldn’t be about scolding people who have the temerity to wish you a happy holiday weekend.
Saturday was the 43rd anniversary of Kent State Massacre, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds into a crowd of student protestors, killing four and wounding nine others.
May 4 for some years now has been recognized in some circles as Star Wars Day, because of the silly pun, “May the fourth be with you.”
On Saturday the hashtag #StarWarsDay was trending much higher than #RememberKentState and other variants on Twitter. Some people were upset about this. They were so upset, that by midday all sorts of people were posting apologies, some of them rather abject, for desecrating the memory of the four students killed at Kent State.
I was flabbergasted. So I took to twitter myself and posted the following:
How dare you people talk about either Star Wars or Kent State while totally ignoring the assassination of Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson! Not to mention the deaths of the Haymarket Square Riot. Or those twenty sailors killed on HMS Sheffield! (In other words, can we please tone down the outrage? Please?)
If you aren’t familiar, HMS Sheffield was a British warship involved in the Falklands War, which was struck by missiles fired by the Argentineans on May 4, 1983. The initial strike disabled several ship systems, including fire suppression systems. The excess rocket fuel in each missile ignited, and the ship’s diesel stores burned for days after the crew had been evacuated. The ship sank while it was being towed in for repairs. And as I mentioned above, 20 members of the crew died in service to their country.
The Haymarket Square Riot broke out near the end of a long labor demonstration in Chicago on May 4, 1886, when police marched in on demonstrators, someone threw a bomb, the police started shooting indiscriminately. Seven police officers were killed (almost all by bullets fired by other policemen, by the way), four demonstrators were killed, well over a hundred people were wounded by either gunfire or shrapnel from the bomb. The demonstration itself had been called to support an ongoing strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which had escalated to the point on May 3 of police and Pinkerton guards firing into the crowd of striking workers, killing two, and wounding many more. Eight anarchists were later arrested and convicted of throwing the bomb, though everyone agrees now that none of them actually threw the bomb, and only one of them was probably involved in the making of bombs. Reaction to the incident kicked off a renewed series of police repression of labor activists and anarchists that many historians refer to as the first Red Scare. While May Day parades and demonstrations by labor had been occurring for a few years before this occurred, this event is often credited as solidifying the significance of May Day as a Worker’s Rights commemoration.
Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson was a Swedish nobleman who led a rebellion against the King of the Kalmar Union, an event which eventually led to Sweden becoming a kingdom of its own. Englebrektsson was assassinated on May 4, 1436 by a rival. Englebrektsson is considered a national hero of Sweden because his actions gave peasants a voice in government for the first time, creating a Riksdag (a deliberative assembly or parliament) structured so that peasants and laborers would have a number of representatives equal to the number of nobles. The Riksdag continued in the form Engelbrektsson instigated for nearly 400 years.
Some will argue that it is unfair for me to compare the assassination of a Swedish rebel leader from the 15th Century with a massacre of peace demonstrators in modern times. One seems lost in the mists of time, while Kent State is a current event, right?
Except Kent State isn’t a current event. It occurred 43 years ago. I personally think that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a much more relevant (and shameful) example of the abuse of power by the U.S. government than Kent State, yet when was the last time #GuantanamoBay was trending at all on Twitter?
And let’s be brutally honest here. Less than half of the Americans living today were even alive when Kent State happened. The median age of people living in the U.S. is 37 years old. That means more than half of the people alive today in the U.S. were born at some time after Kent State. Yes, it was a tragedy. Yes, we should remember instances where our own government has used its power to harm citizens rather than to protect them. But it is ludicrous to demand people treat its anniversary as a day so sacrosanct that no non-serious topics can be discussed.
Not only that, “May the fourth be with you” is a pun that is understandable by the vast majority of the English speaking world, whereas Kent State was an American tragedy. If you quizzed an Englishman less than middle aged living about Kent State, they’re likely to think you’re talking about something happening in the county of Kent in Southeast England, rather than a Vietnam Era event at an American University.
Two friends who saw my posting on Twitter spoke up to agree. By very odd coincidence, both of them are children of sets of parents who both were students at Kent State when the Kent State Massacre occurred. Yes, both parents of both of these unrelated friends were there. Each of them expressed surprise that anyone thought you couldn’t keep both meanings of May 4 in the same mind at the same time.
I get outraged about things all the time. Outrage over something like a troops firing on unarmed civilians is certainly justified. Outrage over people sharing a completely unrelated joke on the forty-third anniversary of merely one such event which is hardly the worst that this government has ever perpetrated?
That’s just silly!
I love The Big Bang Theory. I didn’t expect to. In fact, when I read about the show before it first aired, I was convinced that not only would it be horrible, but that it would obviously be a collection of low-brow humor built around making fun of nerds.
And since I’m a nerd, freak, and a geek from way back, I just didn’t see the point.
Then a pair of friends—both nerds—told me how funny it was. As one said, “Yes, the humor is at the expense of the nerds, but it’s things that are true about nerds. Not only do I know people exactly like them, many times I’ve been the people just like them.”
As I watched it, I’ve had one realization over and over. Every time I start thinking that while I am nerdy, of the four central characters, I’m more like Leonard (the least socially awkward one), Sheldon (the über-est nerd) will do something that is exactly like me. Or I will say something that I realize would be totally in character for Sheldon to say.
For instance, today a friend made a comment on Twitter about President’s Day, and before I knew what I was doing, I had replied to point out that the official Federal holiday is called “Washington’s Birthday Observance.” President’s Day is a completely unofficial name adopted mostly by advertising people. Explaining that to someone is something I could easily see Sheldon doing on the show. Having dipped my toes into Sheldon-land, I might as well leap on in.
I’m old enough that I remember when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by Congress (it was signed into law during the summer of 1968—between my first and second grades—though it didn’t go into effect until January of ’71). I have quite distinct memories of teachers explaining, after the law was passed, how Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday would no longer be observed as separate holidays, but that a Monday between them would be the new holiday.
Except not one fact in that sentence was true.
Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, has never been observed as a Federal holiday. Some states at various times have observed it, but as far as I have been able to tell, none of the states I lived in as a child was one of them. I could digress for a bit about how there are no national holidays, and why states are free to ignore federal holidays, and why a Lincoln’s birthday is controversial in some states, but let’s leave that for another day.
Washington’s Birthday, February 22, was observed as a holiday only in the District of Columbia beginning in 1879. It wasn’t until 1885 that an act of Congress declared it a holiday to be observed at all federal agencies and offices throughout the states and territories.
In the 1950s some citizens started lobbying to have March 4, the original Inauguration Day, declared a federal Presidents’ Day holiday to honor the office of the presidency. A bill to name both Lincoln’s Birthday and this March 4 Presidents’ Day as federal holidays in addition to the existing Washington’s Birthday got stalled in Congress in part because some felt that three federal holidays in such close proximity was too much.
By the time the Uniform Monday Holiday bill was introduced, the first draft did specify that the third Monday in February would be observed as Washington and Lincoln Day, but that draft never got out of committee. The bill that was actually passed named the third Monday in February Washington’s Birthday Observance. Lincoln’s Birthday wasn’t included or mentioned.
A couple of states do officially observe a Presidents’ Day, but neither does so in February. Massachusetts recognizes May 29 (John F. Kennedy’s birthday) as Presidents’ Day in honor of the four men from Massachusetts who have served as president thus far: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and JFK. New Mexico observes a Presidents’ Day to honor all who have served as President, but the holiday is designated as the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Most of the rest of the states recognize the third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday. In Virginia the official name is George Washington Day. In Alabama, the official name is Washington and Jefferson Day, in honor of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In Arkansas the official name is George Washington and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, to honor both Washington and Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist.
Currently, only three states officially recognize Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday: Illinois, Connecticut, and Missouri. All three observe it on the 12th, no matter what day of the week that date falls on.
So the next time someone calls it Presidents’ Day, you’re prepared to set them straight.
Because neither Sheldon nor I can be everywhere.