Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

With Holiday, it’s Quantity that Counts

Posted by Neal on December 10, 2005

When I was a kid, I thought Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, and Merry Christmas were interchangeable phrases, to be used according to one’s whim on Christmas cards or tags on presents, or when greeting someone in person. Only years later did I learn that (1) there were actually other holidays than Christmas during December, and (2) the first two phrases were often seen as wimpy, politically correct generalities used by people who wanted in on the fun (or increased sales opportunities) of Christmas without actually having to recognize it as a Christian holiday.

But, of course, there are holidays other than Christmas that come near the end of the calendar year, so what are you supposed to say if you want to wish someone some kind of seasonally appropriate holiday wishes? Sure, if you know they celebrate some particular holiday, you can mention it specifically. But if you don’t, I guess the complainers’ answer would be just not to say anything at all. Actually, one answer I’ve heard is just to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone you please, and trust that no non-Christians will take offense at your carelessness. And if any do, tough noogies for them.

If you don’t like either of those options, then it’s useful to have a general term (holiday) that covers the disjunction Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. (And what about Easter or Passover or Halloween/Samhain or any other holidays during the year? I’ll save that for another post.) People who universally condemn the phrase Happy Holidays are, IMO, willfully ignoring other widely celebrated holidays that are out there. However, the complaints you hear this time of year go beyond just Happy Holidays, into the more general substitution of holiday for Christmas in other contexts. And here I’m with them: Violations of Grice’s Maxim of Quantity are annoying.

I’ve mentioned the Maxim of Quantity before (here and here), and Semantic Compositions talks about it here, but to give a couple of new examples, imagine someone who introduces himself to you by saying, “Hi, my name is either Bill or Frank.” Oh, you infer, he goes by either name. But later, you find out that his name is definitely Bill, not Frank, and that nobody knows him as Frank or calls him Frank as a nickname. Bill has been perverse and uncooperative in not providing you as much relevant information as he could and should have. Or suppose a company tells you that for a fee, it will notify you whenever someone requests a credit report on you from “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” It knows that you will interpret one of the three to mean any of them, but actually the way they operate is that they notify you only when someone requests a report on you from Experian, which after all, is “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” (This example comes from Glen at Agoraphilia, but I can’t find the relevant posting.) If they had respected the Maxim of Quantity, they would simply have said Experian, rather than phrase things in such a way that the possibility is created for other, inaccurate interpretations.

And now, suppose that in December you go to a store selling “holiday trees” (to take one of this year’s most ridiculed examples). Accepting that holiday(s) at this time of year refers to the set including Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year’s Day, etc., then it sounds like the store is selling trees for two or more of these holidays. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Hanukkah tree or a Thanksgiving tree. They’re selling Christmas trees, so calling them holiday trees violates the Maxim of Quantity in the same way as the earlier examples.

On Christmas Day last year I had to call the customer service line for some company, and got this message: “Our office is closed for the holiday.” There’s only one holiday I know of that occurs on December 25th, so what is the vagueness accomplishing?

Actually, we spent our Christmas in a hotel, because an ice storm had knocked out our power two days before, and it was down to 40 degrees in our house (and I don’t mean Celsius). The newspaper talked about people who’d had to take shelter in school gyms for “a warm, if not miserable, holiday.” (I think they meant “warm, if miserable”.) The only holiday in that time frame was Christmas. Were they worried that not all of those in the shelter celebrated Christmas? Well, if they weren’t having a warm but miserable Christmas, they weren’t having any other warm but miserable holiday, either, so why say holiday at all in that case? (I checked: Hanukkah began December 7 last year, and Kwanzaa doesn’t start until the 26th.)

Though the holiday examples violate the Maxim of Quantity, they don’t cause the confusion my earlier examples did. In those examples, you don’t know Quantity has been violated until you learn that Bill’s name isn’t Frank, or you find that someone has obtained credit cards in your name and you were never notified when the credit cards requested your credit history. With the holiday examples, cultural knowledge makes the meaning clear, but you know at once that something is a little weird, and you wonder why. If they could have simply said “Christmas” and didn’t, what was the reason? Is there something shameful about it? This is the kind of reasoning that leads many Christians to take offense, and even causes some of the more conspiracy-minded to talk about a War on Christmas.

I don’t think it’s a war on Christmas. For one thing, it’s not always even Christmas that gets replaced–I had someone wish me a pleasant holiday on the day before Thanksgiving, and Googling the phrase “holiday menorah” produces a number of hits (not counting ones that say, “holiday tree is as dumb as saying holiday menorah“). I think it’s just that some people get in the habit of replacing some specific holiday name with holiday in situations where there’s a good reason to, and then overgeneralize. In other words, don’t attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

5 Responses to “With Holiday, it’s Quantity that Counts”

  1. blahedo said

    It’s not stupidity at all. People do this for all sorts of things other than holiday/Christmas, and it’s not out of malice, stupidity, political correctness, or anything else. It’s just because language provides multiple ways to say a lot of things.

    If I’m talking to someone in town, I’ll often simply say I teach “at the college”, sometimes with a vague wave in Knox’s general direction. In the previous sentence, I said “in town” rather than “in Galesburg”, just because that’s what I happened to type and the identity of the particular town was not relevant to my point. When I was in grad school, people would refer interchangeably to “godzilla” or “the file server”. This didn’t violate any Gricean maxims; it’s just how people talk.

    While some examples (e.g. “holiday tree”) may indeed be attributable to a weak sort of hedging, I think most of your “holiday” examples are not instances of what you claim them to be.

  2. […] In the examples above, there is always some kind of gradient that X and Y are located on: on the scale of utility, greatness ranks higher than goodness; on the scale of positive attitude, enthusiass ranks higher than willingness; on a scale of offensiveness, (we are asked to accept that) questioning someone’s patriotism is more offensive than questioning their competence; running is faster than walking. However, in checking out the usage of if not, I’ve come across an additional meaning for it, in examples like these: If he weren’t so concerned with his girl, he could have lived a long, if not miserable, life as a Broadway attraction. (link)a warm, if not miserable, holiday. (link) […]

  3. Size said

    This puts very succinctly what I have been thinking about “holiday trees” for several years now. I don’t have any problem with the phrase “Happy Holidays”, as I am perfectly willing to accommodate those of whichever faith, or no faith at all.

    But a Christmas tree is, indeed, a Christmas tree, not a Holiday Tree nor a Winter Tree. Now, I’m not a Constitutional lawyer, so I don’t know if the State government putting up a “Christmas tree” violates the establishment clause or not. But I know that my local hardware store can put one up without any problem at all (They may choose to put up any other holiday decorations as the owner wishes or to accommodate clientele of different backgrounds, but should not be obligated to do anything).

    It’s no war on Christmas, but it leads to some silly-sounding names of things.

  4. As far as generic “holiday trees” are concerned, I actually have a neighbor in my nursing home who decorates a small artificial tree for many holidays year-round. She’ll hang plastic eggs on it for Easter, flags for July Fourth, toy pumpkins for Halloween and so on. (It’s a shame nobody’s taken pictures, or else I’d post this year’s evidence!) When more people adopt my neighbor’s idea, maybe THEN the term “holiday tree” won’t seem like an attack on Christmas or Christianity. 🙂

  5. Julie said

    Very likely they were trying to reduce repetitions, so Christmas becomes “the holiday” because they don’t want to say “Christmas” four times in a 90-second story.

    As for the trees, there are non-Christians who put up “Christmas trees” but call the holiday they celebrate by another name. I’m thinking mainly of the neo-Pagans who celebrate Yule. After all, the connection between Jesus and a fir tree covered with glass balls is pretty tenuous.

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