Wood on Words: Columnist Barry Wood examines the history of "Xmas."
"Say, Mother, as sure as there's an X in Christmas. ..."
Thus begins a commercial in Stan Freberg's classic recording "Green Chri$tma$," a protest against the overcommercialization of the holiday -- released in 1958.
Obviously, this cultural conflict is nothing new. What is relatively new is calling it "the war on Christmas." That phrase seems way over the top, especially when there's a real war going on, with people actually being killed and maimed. (Religion is a key element in that one, too.)
One recurring complaint is that the use of "Xmas" is disrespectful. However, as stated in "Garner's Modern American Usage" by Brian A. Garner, "The prejudice against it is unfounded and unfortunate."
The "X" is actually from the Greek letter "chi," which is the first letter in "Christos," the Greek word for "Christ." In early Christian times, it became a convenient symbol for Christ and, because of its shape, for the cross.
So there's really nothing profane about "Xmas." You can still object to it as an abbreviation, though.
"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."
How many times have you heard that one? However, as a reader recently pointed out in an e-mail, for a long time, referring to someone as nice was anything but.
The origin of the word is the Latin "nescius," meaning "ignorant." According to "The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories," "nice" has metamorphosed through the centuries from "stupid" to "wanton, ostentatious" to "coy, reserved" to "fastidious, scrupulous."
That last one is incorporated into the first definition in the current Webster's: "difficult to please; refined." In fact, the idea of "nice" as "a generalized term of approval" is the dictionary's last entry.
As might be expected, some usage experts object to this broadening of "nice." But I say, if you can't say anything nice. ...
And have a nice day.
More prose on cons
In response to last week's column, a Durand reader sent a reminder about this bit of wordplay:
"If 'pro' is the opposite of 'con,' is 'progress' the opposite of 'Congress'?"
It sure seems like it sometimes, doesn't it? As with the Christmas sensitivity issue, this is no recent development either.
Mark Twain was fond of suggesting that "there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress."
In fact, members of Congress are pros, as in professional politicians, and often meet fairly high standards of conduct. However, a disappointing number of them turn out to be cons, too.
And yet hope springs eternal, or at least biennially, that our elected representatives will get back to tending to our nation's business and stop giving us the business.
Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at email@example.com or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.