Know Your Words

Of Celebrity and Seriousness

Be thankful you’re a nobody, because it’s tough to be a celebrity.

On the most recent Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian did a short bit about pop singer Selena Gomez, who recently told Vogue magazine that she “just really can’t wait for people to forget about [her.]

Bill seemed incredulous and I agree with him, for the absolute worst way to get people to forget about you would be to do an interview with a magazine that appears on newsstands around the world. But hey, what do I know? I’m not a celebrity. I’m don’t even know where the word celebrity comes from. I do, however, know how to fix that.

Celebrity, Webster’s tells us, comes from the Latin word celebritas, meaning multitude or fame.

celebrity [L. celebritas, multitide, fame < celeber frequented, populus, infamous], 1. fame; renown; wide recognition. 2. a famous or well-publicized person.

As you’re likely aware, the word celebrity is related to celebrate.

celebrate [<L. celebratus, pp. of celebrare, to frequent, go in great numbers, honor < celeber, frequented, populous], 1. to perform (a ritual, etc.) publicly and formally ; solemnize. 2. to commemorate (an anniversary, holiday, etc) with some ceremony or festivity. 3. to proclaim. 4. to honor or praise publicly. [As a verb] 1. to observe a holiday, anniversary, etc. with festivities 2. to perform a religious ceremony. 3. [Colloquial] to have a convivial good time.

Obviously, events like the Oscars pertain to the “lighter” aspects of this definition, particularly the “convivial good time” stuff. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to note the association of celebrity and celebration with religious solemnity. After all, given the amount of press the Oscars (and celebrities in general) receive, you’d think something more important was going on. (By the way, it’s worth noting at this point that the word celebrant means priest).

This relationship between celebrity and formal, solemn ceremonies is noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, too.

celebrity [late Middle English] The early recorded sense was ‘solemn ceremony.’ The source is Old French celebrite or Latin celebritas, from celeber, celebr- ‘frequented or honored.’

Yet, as interesting as this all is, it doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding why people are so enamored with celebrities. Enter The Dream Dictionary from A to Z, a book that, in its own strange way, helps shed some light on the matter.

“Our fascination and adoration of favorite celebrities stems from a desire to emulate their positive qualities or talents. We admire them for their beauty and creative talent, and sometimes for their humanitarian work and political activism. Frequently we feel that these people are doing something that we would love to do but cannot because we have neither the opportunity to nor the self confidence.”

The book goes on to say:

“To fully understand the message of a dream in which a celebrity features you need to hone in on the quality they represent and decide whether it pertains to someone you know, or some aspect of yourself. [Y]ou need to consider the outstanding trait for which that celebrity is famous, then you need to think about what makes that person stand out for you.”

Again, given the way events like the Oscars capture the public imagination, maybe this doesn’t just apply to our dreams. After all, as the Dream Dictionary continues:

“Celebrity dreams … have a powerful energy. If you think the celebrity represents a quality in yourself that you’d like foster, don’t assume you have copy them and follow their life path. Remember dreams only depict the essence of something; the way you choose to put that energy to work, and how it appears in your life, is entirely up to you.”

How’s that for solemnity?

Know Your Words

“And the Blunder Goes to …”


Despite my best efforts to ignore it, I’ve been thinking about the mess up at the Oscars and, in particular, the use of the word blunder to describe it. I mean, what, if anything, makes something a blunder as opposed to a mistake, a boner, a boo-boo, a goof, so on and so forth. Are they all just synonyms or do they all have specific meanings?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, blunder (which can be a noun or a verb) means:

1. To mix up or mingle confusedly
2. To confound (in one’s mind) stupidly
3. To move, act, or perform blindly or stupidly
4. To deal blindly or stupidly
5. To utter thoughtlessly, stupidly, or by a blunder, to blurt out
6. To make a stupid and gross mistake in doing anything
7. To mismanage

1.) Confusion, bewilderment, trouble, disturbance, clamor
2.) A gross mistake; an error due to stupidity or carelessness

Since mistake is used in some of these definitions, it’s safe to say a blunder is a type of mistake (there’s the answer to that question).

Alright, so that’s what it means. Now where does it come from? The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says this of blunder:

Blunder [Middle English]  Blunder conjures up  an image of someone not quite seeing what is physically there as an obstacle, or not quite perceiving implications; the word is  probably Scandinavian in origin and related to blind. A compound associated with blunder is blunderbuss, a mid 17th century alteration of Dutch donderbus, literally ‘thunder gun.’

Thunder gun, huh? Well, the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins doesn’t have anything to say about that, but it does link blunder and blind.

Blunder When blunder first entered the language, it meant ‘stumble around blindly, bumping into things,’ which gives a clue to its possible ultimate connection with blind. Its probable ultimate source was Old Norse blundra ‘shut one’s eyes,’ the forerunner of Swedish blunda and Norwegian blunda, and very likely a descendant of Indo-European bhlendhod, from which blind comes. The first record of the modern sense ‘foolish mistake’ comes in Edward Phillip’s The New World of English Words (1706).

Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English also links blunder and blind, but not before associating it with blend.

blend, to mix, hence n; obs blend, to dazzle or blind, adj. hence noun and verb; blunder. 1. If we set out from the predominant meaning, ‘to render dark, (hence) to confuse,’ the dark is light enough, and the path becomes clear: ‘to blend’ (mingle) comes, through Middle English blenden, from Old Norse blanda…. [You get the idea.]

This seems like a stretch to me, although there’s no question that the envelopes containing the winner for “best picture” were mingled, which made the organizers look stupid and foolish, and culminated in not just a mistake, but a blunder.