Wednesday, July 06, 2016


Is a Manchester sexual health clinic
trying to tell me something?
I just feel that I should say this up front: there is nothing autobiographical about this post. There. Got that out of the way. The topic only came up because I was in a conversation that involved an allusion to leaflets in doctors' (AmE) offices/(BrE) surgeries

Those leaflets are sometimes about (AmE, old-fashioned) social diseases. In either country it's possible to find references to  Sexually Transmitted Diseases or STDs or  Sexually Transmitted Infections or STIs. Is there a difference? Not really. To quote one (US) site on the matter:
STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, and many people, mostly the medical community, have begun transitioning from “STD” to “STI” in an effort to clarify that not all sexually transmitted infections turn into a disease. For instance, the vast majority of women who contract HPV (human papilloma virus) will not develop the resulting disease cervical cancer. In fact, most cases of infection will clear up within two years. Additionally, people who use this term believe that it also eliminates some of the shame that’s been associated with the acronym “STD.”
The UK seems to be far ahead of the US in adopting the "new" term.

The GloWBE corpus has about 5 times as many STD(s) in AmE as STI(s), but about 1.2 times as many STIs in BrE as STDs. The numbers for the non-abbreviated forms were not as strongly separated by country, but there were still more sexually transmitted diseases in the US and infections in the UK.

GloWBE is useful because relatively current and country-coded, but  it's counting up phrases from the web and there's no guarantee of the Britishness of someone writing a comment on a British news site (etc.). I wanted to check further because the UK numbers weren't as stark as I had expected. The friend in the aforementioned conversation has a nurse for his partner, a (UK) nurse, and his experience/impression was that in the medical profession it is almost always STI in the UK. That's been my impression too.

So, I searched for the terms on the National Health Service (UK) website and found about 4 times as many sexually transmitted infection(s) as sexually transmitted diseases but similar numbers of STI and STD. This seemed to be because almost whenever the NHS site uses the abbreviation, they use both abbreviations, as in "Sexual health testing for people with symptoms or who have had sex with someone who has a confirmed STI/STD" on a list of clinic services. In some cases, when I clicked through on a hit for STD there was no visible STD on the page, just STI. Which is why, boys and girls, it is generally better to use a corpus rather than Google for getting word-frequency counts. Some SEO magic seems to be going on on there.

On the National Institutes of Health (US) website there are twice as many sexually transmitted diseases as sexually transmitted infections.

Was STI coined in the UK? Not necessarily, but it's hard to tell. Only sexually transmitted disease (first citation, 1962) is in the OED. Searching Google Books, I find instances of sexually transmitted infection going back at least as far, but there's no clear separation between US (red) and UK(blue) books at the start of the term's history.

Why has STI caught on more in the UK? Some possibilities:
  • A more enlightened approach to sexual health? 
  • Better management of terminology due to the dominance of the National Health Service in delivering patient information and treatment?
  • It fits better with other names for illnesses in the dialect?
In terms of the last point, a first thing to wonder is whether STD is more popular in the US because Americans are more used to calling such things diseases, as in venereal disease. The answer seems to be "no". Venereal disease is and was just as well used in BrE, as far as I can tell.

What about the word infection, is that more common in BrE more generally? The answer is complicated, so I've decided to make that a separate post. It's half-written, so it might even be the next one!

And I leave you with what may be my favo(u)rite disease joke, from Cyanide and Happiness:


Paul Dormer said...

Back in the sixties, when it became possible in the UK to make long distance phone calls without going through an operator, it was known as Subscriber Trunk Dialling, abbreviated to STD. Telephone directories used to contain lists of STD codes. Maybe that's why STI is more used in the UK.

Then again, the term that I recall being used at that time was VD, for venereal diseases.

John Cowan said...

Doubtless the stigma attached to STD will attach itself to STI soon enough. The evidence of a century in the U.S. is that those who hate black people will hate them by whatever name.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I agree with Paul Dormer - to British people of a certain age, STD means direct-dialling on your telephone, without having to go through an operator. As far as I'm aware, we went directly from saying VD to saying STI, with no port of call inbetween - STD, meaning Sexually Transmitted Disease, seems to me to be American.

mjk4219 said...

I'm American, and we used "STI" in health class, with the explanation given that it was a more accurate term than STD. This was at a Pennsylvania public high school about a decade ago. It wasn't even a very progressive sex ed program either, mentioning condoms but pushing an abstinence only program and entirely ignoring the existence of gay people.
I can't say I've seen STI used much any time since, though. I've got a newsletter email from Planned Parenthood mentioning the increase of "bacterial STDs" since the elimination of state funding. I wonder if that's actually specifically what the study was about though, as that wouldn't include HIV, for example.

Eloise said...

This is uncomfortably in the territory of my former specialisation but the difference between an infection and a disease is pretty big and pretty important.

A lot of STIs are asymptomatic, for all or parts of their infection but still communicable and need to be treated. An obvious example would be HIV, (which isn't only sexually transmitted and doesn't directly cause a single disease but a range of symptoms hence it's called a syndrome, so it's not the greatest example in the world) but you can be HIV+ (and so infected) without having AIDS (and so having the associated disease/syndrome) for years-to-decades with modern medication. Go untreated though and your progression is still pretty rapid and brutal from infection to AIDS to death typically within months.

Now, I realise the general usage and the technical usage of language can be widely divergent and I don't know about the US, but in the UK when the NHS pushes sexual health campaigns part of the benefit of the STI language is that it can clearly talk about infections with no symptoms like many cases of chlamydia, which last time I saw the numbers was on the rise in the UK.

Paul Dormer said...

Incidentally, I only ever saw the group Instant Sunshine perform once, must have been the late seventies. Three members of the group were qualified doctors. The fourth was Miles Kington, journalist, humorist and double bass player. He introduced one of the other members of the group by saying, "He's an expert in sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. I'll never look at a phone the same way again."

vp said...

Somewhat amusingly, the first hit I can find for "sexually transmitted disease" is an American report of a moralizing speech by a British doctor from 1962 (Google Books claims to have earlier hits, but they all seem to be misdated legal reports).

"Sexually transmitted infection" is found in American medical journals from 1919 and 1928.

David Crosbie said...

On this thread on telephony (click) we started using STD as a historic term, but pretty soon many of us were using it anachronistically instead of dialling code.

I heard STD in its current meaning on the radio the other day and was a teeny bit uneasy — Didn't this use to mean something else?

How quickly we forget! But then, how quickly we can remember and start using the word again!

Gemma said...

I'm British and I definitely remember noticing the introduction of the term "STI" as being an "update" to the term "STD" that I was more familiar with. Frankly I've never realised that there was a practical distinction between the terms. I just thought it was a stylistic trend. (This post and its comments have left me better informed!)

I do remember telephone codes being referred to as STD codes (in the 80s/90s) but I wouldn't have been able to tell you what it stood for in that case. Nowadays it would be surprising to me to see the telephone code referred to as an STD code. I think it's normally referred to as a dialling code, or area code instead (but I'm doubting my memory on that now I'm talking about it). Along with the advent of mobile phones I'm now much more aware of the importance of a country code of a telephone number (e.g. +44) and, since in the UK mobile numbers don't look like landline numbers, they don't even have any sort of "STD" code at all.

I'm about at the point where I might be surprised to see an official source (e.g. an NHS publication) use the term STD (except as a secondary term or "translation" of STI), but I might well still fall back on using STD myself as the older, more "natural" term in my personal vocabulary.

As for VD/venereal disease, I thought that was an American term. Presumably I've seen it in the odd (older) American film and drawn that conclusion, perhaps incorrectly?

How about the absence of STIs? I often see phrases like "I'm clean" in the (mostly American-authored) fiction I read, although I'm aware of the unfortunate "unclean" overtones of the term. Is this what British people most often say too, I wonder?

vp said...


I remember classmates making ribald jokes about "VD" when I attended secondary school in England in the 1980s / 90s.

Ktrk Poore said...

Terminology changes, particularly when scientific terminology escapes into the real world and later gets updated. Centigrade-->Celsius for temperature changes, the Fujita scale for tornadoes gets replaced by the Enhanced Fujita scale (F4->EF4, sort of), etc. I think, though, that sometimes the old terminology gets too embedded in the culture, and never gets updated. I don't have any examples right now, though.

David Crosbie said...

Kirk Poore

I've never heard anybody in 'the real word' — the world outside scientific discourse — say 'Celsius'.

Another example of terminology change is historic dating. In 'the real word' we still say 'BC' and 'AD', while historians now write BCE and CE.

VD is rather different. Celsius and BC are perfectly neutral as both words and concepts. But speaking of VD belongs, as vp recalls, to the world of ribald jokes in the classroom and elsewhere. As John Cowan remarks the concept has a stigma attached — which in turn attaches itself to the word.

Perhaps things are not not quite so gloomy as John believes. The taboo on speaking of these conditions is much less strong than it was when I was young. People feel much more freedom to utter the terms STD and STI in 'polite company' because it's so much more acceptable to refer to the conditions they denote.

Euphemism? Well yes, but perhaps with positive results.

David Crosbie said...


No, the term VD wan't an American invention.

The earliest use of venereal = 'sexual' in the OED is back in the sixteenth century. And the first recorded use of the wording general disease is from 1658. Admittedly this was in something called New World English Words, but the phrase is recorded on this side of the Atlantic from 1677.

So perhaps it was an American invention after all. But it didn't stay that way.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's a country thing and an age thing, too, David Crosbie. I would never say Centigrade, only Celsius. And if you told me a temperature in Fahrenheit, I'd have to google a conversion calculator to figure out if it was hot or cold. But then again I think NZ went fully metric earlier and more thoroughly than most countries: I also couldnt tell you my weight in stones or pounds, only kg.

Paul Dormer said...

Well, I'm English an 63 in two weeks time, and I say Celsius. But then, I do have a physics degree, so kelvins are more my thing.

Christian Johnson said...

Peggy Lee sings "be it Fahrenheit or centigrade" in her nonpareil rendition of "Fever," and in the U.S. that feels about right for the 50s. By the 70s, when the country was making an abortive attempt at metrication and I was in elementary school, "Celsius" was the only term I heard. I remember having to ask my grandfather what he meant by "centigrade."

And (back to topic, sorry Lynne) for me, "VD" is indelibly associated with an embarrassing series of public service advertisements circa 1980, starting a teenaged boy with perfect David Cassidy hair at a payphone explaining to his presumed girlfriend that he had "VD."

I'm still horrified at them 30+ years later!

Theophylact said...

There's a really annoying racist, sexist, homophobic science fiction writer named Theodore Beale, who publishes and blogs as Vox Day. You won't be surprised that those who are not his friends often refer to him as VD.

Theophylact said...

I'm a chemist, and a bit of a pedant. Degrees Kelvin and degrees Celsius are "Centigrade", because they both divide the range between the triple point of water and its boiling point into one hundred degrees. The difference is that 0 K (sometimes called "absolute zero") is −273.15 °C, so all Kelvin temperatures have positive values, and a lot of sciency things are easier to calculate when you plug Kelvins in.

By now, only us geezers remember when Centigrade was in style. But you won't go wrong by saying "degrees C".

David Crosbie said...

I've just been watching the repeat of an episode of Dalziel and Pascoe from 2006.

An important plot driver is that one of the characters was infertile, having many years back caught gonorrhoea from the murder victim. This is disclosed in the writing by the the pathologist discovering in the victim's medical record that he had in the past been treated for

'an STD'

This is later named, and the implications worked out by the detectives.

So that's the term that the scriptwriter of a popular TV detective series thought the viewers would immediately recognise ten years ago.

David Crosbie said...

If you have no connection with scientific measurement, then pretty well the only time you speak of temperature in degrees is when discussing the weather.

There is a fault line in Britain between on the one hand younger speakers who have no memory of Fahrenheit and therefore just say 'degrees', and on the other hand older speakers like me who have always been aware of the two types of degree and have always called them Fahrenheit and Centigrade.

[I believe most of us also learned about RĂ©aumur, which made it more familiar to Brits than to the French.]

I wasn't living in Britain when the official changeover took place. I've been told that people at the time used 'degrees' meaning when talking about frosts and near frosts, but meaning when talking about warm temperatures

Laura said...

David Crosbie, I'm casting another vote from the "real world" of people who say Celsius -- here in Canada, it seems to be the standard. I rarely see Centigrade used.

Paul Dormer said...

My memory tells me that the changeover from Fahrenheit to Celsius in the UK took place over a number of years. "Centigrade" first started appearing in BBC weather forecasts in the mid-sixties, about the same time I started doing science at secondary school. At first, Fahrenheit appeared first, then temperatures were given first in Celsius then in Fahrenheit in a forecast, until finally Fahrenheit was dropped almost entirely. By the late seventies, I was thinking entirely in Celsius.

Now, whenever I visit the US, I have to do the conversions to work out how hot it is. And despite knowing they still use Fahrenheit in the US, I still get caught out sometimes. I watch American sports a lot and I was watching an NFL game on Sky Sports a few years ago, a play-off game in January in Green Bay, when the American commentator said it was cold, three degrees. I was thinking, that is cold. I think anything below 5C is very cold. It was only during half-time that I realised they didn't mean three degrees, they meant -16 degrees, ten degrees colder than I have ever seen it here in the south of England.

Then again, when I started work at the CEGB in 1973, I was sent on a course on the basics of electrical power generation and transmission. One talk was on the thermodynamics of steam turbines. I had just done a physics degree, which included rather a lot of thermodynamics, but I was taken aback when the lecturer used the abbreviation R for temperatures. Turned out this meant degrees Rankine, which was the Fahrenheit equivalent of the kelvin, where water freezes at 491 R. Engineers in the UK were still using Imperial units in the seventies.

Incidentally, Theophylact, in quantum mechanics, when you have a population inversion in a quantum state (as, for instance in a laser) you can get temperatures that are measured in negative kelvins. It's a long time since I did my degree, so I can't remember all the details.

David Crosbie said...

Laura, weather-talk in any given English-speaking place at any given time there may or may not be feel the need for a term meaning 'not Fahrenheit'.

As Paul Dormer relates, Britain was one such place during the sixties and into the seventies. By now, younger speakers can say 'degrees' without any need for clarification. as Paul also relates, the term for 'not Fahrenheit' in the sixties was 'Centigrade'.

The difference between Britain and Canada is that we don't share a border with the United States. You still need a term for 'not Fahrenheit' . And forty-odd years on from when we needed a term, the standard term available is Celsius.

Although your average punter now just says 'degrees' (or the number also), we do occasionally hear 'Celsius' in BBC weather forecasts. I think there are two reasons for this:

• The presenters are trained meteorologists, accustomed to the redundant precision of scientific discourse.

• The BBC perceives a vanguard role in leading the public to the usage of experts. This is also seen in their use of BCE and CE in place of BC an AD. This provoked a rant from Boris Johnson to the effect that the BBC was being misguided, elitist and an affront to democracy.

Paul Dormer said...

Then again, David, there's the phrase, "What's that in real money?" which I presume dates from the decimalisation of currency in 1971. About fifteen years ago at work we were having a discussion about the weather and I said that the forecast temperature for the afternoon was 28, to which I got the reply, "What's that in real money?" The guy was about my age, but still worked in Fahrenheit. Whereas, my father was 25 years older than me and was quite happy to work in Celsius.

David Crosbie said...


Engineers in the UK were still using Imperial units in the seventies.

A friend of mine in the mid-sixties moved from university science study into work placement (or it could have been his first job) and was amazed to find engineers working in hybrid units.

I don't speak the language, so I can't tell you what they were — something along the lines of British Thermal Units per cubic meter.

Kate Bunting said...

STD is no longer used in the telephone sense because, I suppose, it's no longer a novelty to be able to dial your own long-distance calls. I don't think I would have known what an STI was without stopping to think.

When I spent some time in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1973-4 I was disconcerted at first to see so many cars with the registration letters VD (from the district Canton de Vaud). Those letters definitely suggested the medical meaning to Brits in those days.

David Crosbie said...


1 Either I don't understand your graph or there's a significant typo.

2 I don't think the NHS online usage is as random as it first appears.

I suspect that the difference between STD and SDI isn't like Celsius and Centigrade. It's's not just a matter of change over time — although that's part of the explanation, and may come to account for all variation in the future. But right now, as I see it, the two terms are available to NHS communicators as a choice. It depends on whom the communicators are targeting.

• STD is the threshold term. Threshold pages are there to be spotted by people with an agenda. This may be fear or conviction that they are sufferers; it may be concern for known potential sufferers; it may be a concern with social problems caused by what used to be called VD, and with the infrastructure available to tackle the problems. In any car the concern is on symptoms, detection, treatment — in a word disease.

• STI is the insiders term. These are the pages where clinics and their personnel make clear the full range of their interests and activities. The range has been extended by
-- asymptomatic infections such as HPV
-- the catastrophe of HIV-AIDS

In the past there was a fit between the outsiders' concern and the insiders'. The symptoms could be assigned to a small set of named 'diseases' and it made sense to treat them together discreetly and discretely — away from he more open treatment of other 'diseases'. The lines of separation have been blurred;
-- HIV is often transmitted sexually, but not always
-- AIDS is not one 'disease' amenable to a specialist treatment that's distinct from that of other diseases

I wouldn't be surprised if STD eventually disappeared from NHS online communication, but for the time being I think it's the right term to catch the attention of the right people.

Theophylact said...

Paul Dormer: Actually, I know that. It doesn't comport with people's ordinary notion of temperature, and so I avoided it for reasons of simplicity. (I know there are things that travel faster than light, too.)

lynneguist said...

The graph is Google's, not mine, but Blogger seems to be cutting off the end, where it tells you which line is British and which one American. The red line is American, the blue line British. I'll add that to the blog post for clarity.

Buzz said...

@David Crosbie: I want to take strong issue with the idea that using "B.C." and "A.D." for dates is, as you put it, "neutral." When I was a child in the American midwest, thirtyish years ago, I knew what those abbreviations stood for but did not think twice about using them. As an adult, I realized that I had become extremely uncomfortable with referring to dates that way.

Using those abbreviations makes an affirmative statement of belief in Christianity. Many people may use the abbreviations without realizing that they are making such a statement, but the statement is there, nonetheless. When the surrounding culture has a default assumption of Christianity, it is easy not to notice things like that. However, the assumption that everyone is Christian, unless they specifically identify themselves as "other," has really gotten weaker in America during my lifetime. From what I have seen, that assumption is still quite strong in Britain (although it is probably weakening there as well). People from Britain often perceive Americans as being much more religious, and we are in some ways. But there are religious elements "baked into" British culture that just don't exist here in the same way.

David Crosbie said...


The point I was making is that VD is an emotive term in the way that BC and Celsius are not.

It never occurs to me that BC and AD may have retained their historical association with Christianity. And I don't believe any significant number of my fellow countrymen think that way either.

I'm baffled by your perception that religion is of any great importance in Britain. Most of its importance is historical. We have religious ceremonies at important state occasions. Most people enjoy the familiar hymns, the familiar words. That's why revised Prayer Book and the Revised Edition of the Bible are popular with the small percentage of people who attend church services, but not with the general population. There was a time not long ago where most people thought of themselves as C of E (Church of England) — most people in England, that is. But the label had precious little religious significance. It was just another classification, amounting to 'like other people'. I believe that recent surveys have revealed that even this self-identity as C of E is no longer dominant.

Yes there are some Christians here. And some Jews, some Muslims, some Hindus, some Sikhs, some Buddhists and small bodies of believers such as Pagans and Wiccans (in that they are different). We probably have some Jains, and no doubt other religions are represented. Of course there is a certain amount of prejudice agains all of these bodies. Christians may be the largest, but it's sufficiently divided to allow for prejudice between variants of Christianity. A few peole are hostile to all religions; rather more are hostile to one denomination or other. (This takes extreme form in Northern Ireland, but the rest of us find this difficult to understand.)

At the moment, a larger number than usual are prejudiced against Islam. But that hostility does not arise from Christian convictions, except in a tiny number of cases. There is some hostility between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, but this is just friction between communities, not a religious argument. And, of course, there is antisemitism, but this is directed no less towards non-practicing 'cultural Jews' then towards believers.

Actually, we like to think we're religiously tolerant, and I don't think this is self-deception. Most of us are tolerant because for most of us religion is no big deal. Your assertion Using those abbreviations makes an affirmative statement of belief in Christianity makes no sense here. All BC and AD signal is that we're comfortable with our history. And Christianity was a shaper of our culture though most of that history.

David Crosbie said...


Earlier this year Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, was elected Mayor of London. A nasty element within the Conservative election campaign tried to attack him on two fronts.

Subtle 'dog whistle' hints tried to associate him with Islamic extremists. It was stated — sometimes accurately, sometimes not — that he had spoken in public debates in which hardliners had spoken. Of course, they couldn't openly accuse Sadiq of extremism so they questioned 'his judgement' in the hope that mud would stick.

Much less subtle leaflets were circulated among the Hindu and Sikh communities openly aiming to exploit inter-communal tensions and prise away the more prosperous middle class South-Asian-origin voters from their traditional Labour support.

It wouldn't have made any difference whether Sadiq does or doesn't attend a mosque (he does). No, the attack on both fronts was political.

It failed. Londoners just don't care what religion a politician is.

Tony Blair is a committed Christian. This was the case when he was Prime Minister but his Head of Communications tried to keep it quiet. Asked whether Blair and Bush had prayed together, he replied

'We don't do religion.'

lynneguist said...

David: I understand completely what Buzz means. I was shocked and horrified when my child took part in nativity plays in her state school. My English friends say "it's no big deal; it doesn't mean anything; it's just tradition", but her Muslim friend had to go and sit in the computer room with a teaching aide for most of the month of December (more than one year) because it did mean something to her parents. The fact that there is a state religion is a big deal to Americans who are brought up on the sanctity of the division of church and state, and Christian traditions are found in all sorts of places in UK life. The burning of effigies of Catholics every year on 5 November is seen as 'just good fun' and 'tradition' to a lot of Brits, without really considering them as something that's serious to other people. The reaction is typically "those people should just get over themselves--it doesn't mean anything nowadays". It's a very interesting position. For people who see religion as important (whether because they practi{c/s}e it or actively choose not to), the British position on these things can seem insensitive.

I'm involved in Sunday Assembly, an 'atheist church' (not exactly, but that's the shorthand) that was founded in London and now operates in many countries, including the US. There are often big cross-cultural mismatches in perception between US and UK branches--with, for instance the UK churches generally having no problem singing Christmas songs in December, whereas in the US there's more of a will (not universally--or perhaps even majority-- shared, but a loud will), to reject anything to do with Christmas because it is a Christian feast and we're not Christians. To do the Christian rituals without the belief is seen as disingenous but also as giving power to an institution that not everyone wants to give power to.

So, in a sense, Britain does do religion--not as faith, but as cultural wallpaper.

David Crosbie said...


So, in a sense, Britain does do religion--not as faith, but as cultural wallpaper.

Exactly. That's what I meant by saying 'we're comfortable with our history' . At our worst, we identify with all the actors our history. At our best, we recognise our historical crimes and errors — the Opium Wars, the transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean slave economy, the colonial repressions and all — and compartmentalise into the past and the alien way they did things then.

Cognitive dissonance? Maybe, but it works. That is to say, it keeps us comfortable.

Of course, Christianity isn't seen as a crime. But public Christianity belongs in that same compartmentalised past. Present-day Christianity is a private matter.

Returning to colonial repression, the perfect note was struck by our most experienced — and arguably most accomplished — diplomat, Queen Elizabeth the Second. At a ground-breaking State Dinner in Dublin she acknowledged to the Irish President and general Establishment, and though watching media to the Irish population

To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.

They loved it.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...


But aren't most American Christmas songs secular? Things like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Winter Wonderland" - and even "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - have absolutely nothing to do with the Christian festival that only a minority celebrates any more. At my grandson's school, the Reception Class (Kindergarten? First grade? Anyway, the year you turn 5) does a secular Christmas play that all pupils, whatever their religious affiliation, can take part in with a clear conscience.

lynneguist said...

I'd hardly say that 'most' Christmas songs are secular. After all, as we've seen on the blog before, Americans are responsible for Away in a Manger, among others. Country music offers several new religious songs a year. And you've probably not been subjected to the horror of Faith Hill's 'A Baby Changes Everything'. Even if Christmas songs are not about Christ, they're still Christmas-related. Rudolph wouldn't be pulling the sleigh if westerners didn't celebrate the birth of Jesus. Our Sunday Assembly in Brighton would sing the ones about winter, but I'm not sure every Sunday Assembly would.

My child's first Christmas play was Whoopsy Daisy Angel, about an incompetent angel who's supposed to announce the birth of Jesus. That shocked me, since we'd moved neighbourhoods especially so that she could go to a non-church school. By year 2 they were doing pantos. but several non-Christian children were still not taking part--I think in part because the precedent had been set that this was a *Christmas* show and not just an 'end of term' show.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I would say very few Westerners celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas - only actual Christians. Many probably don't even know why we have a celebration at that time of year, other than as an excuse for a feast and presents and "it's lovely for the children, isn't it?".... but celebrating the birth of Christ? I very much doubt many people outside the various faith communities know what that implies.

lynneguist said...

Not sure what you mean by 'what that implies', but most Westerners certainly know that Christmas is the "Jesus's birthday" celebration. In the UK, children learn it at school, among other places. The point I'm making has little to do with whether they understand the implications of Jesus's birth for members of the Christian faith, but whether they recognise it as a Christian holiday.

All I'm saying is that the implications of it being a (at its root) Christian holiday make some non-Christian people more uncomfortable with it than others--and that secular Americans in particular can be fairly uncomfortable with some of its traditions--and especially on the imposition of those traditions. In the US, doing a nativity play would not be legal in a state school because it would amount to the promotion of a religion by the state. In the UK, it's ok because there is a state religion. The majority of the public doesn't mind because it has little meaning to them and it's 'tradition'. In America, it isn't 'just tradition', it's religion. Even if it's not your religion, it's religion, not just neutral tradition. (I'm not talking about presents and trees and Rudolph, I'm still talking about things like nativity plays.)

And so getting back to the original point above, protests against BC/AD are similarly more salient, in my experience, in the US, where to call something 'the year of our Lord' strikes people as problematic because religion is a living thing for more people--even the non-religious. It's not just background noise of the culture.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

I think you underestimate the effect that Lynne characterises as religion as cultural wallpaper.

The feast and presents you speak of belong to a substrate of our culture which actually preceded Christianity: the customs of midwinter feasting and annual gift-giving.

So what's the Christian layer on top? For the religious, it's a celebration of incarnation and promise of salvation . Strip these away and you're still lest with a compelling story and some attractive symbolism.

I wrote of cognitive dissonance, which is rather a negative take. A tradition from Aristotle to Coleridge expressed more positively as willing suspension of disbelief. While the story is being told, audiences accept what they have previously doubted and will doubt again afterwards. Few, if any, now believe in the Olympian gods, but the Greek myths can still grab us.

As well as being a great story, the Nativity narrative projects arresting images: a family reduced to sharing living space with farm animals; a child of such might that kings are brought down to the same level as simple shepherds in worshipping him; an angel proclaiming peace and good will. That's why there's a willing audience for Christmas messages from the Queen and from Christian leaders. Without the theological implications, there's still an appetite for an annual moral stocktaking, a fond wish for a new start involving kindness and world peace.

Kindness, to a lesser extent than feating and jollity, is at the heart of A Christmas Carol, which contributed so much to the cultural construct of Christmas. Religious Christians may not see this as the main thrust of the angel's message, but that's what Dickens identified, and that's what most of us are happy to hear.

Stripping it down to the bare story, we're left with a key to those jolly carols we enjoy each December — and to some of the greatest woks in the history of Western Art.

Yes, the gift-giving is largely 'for the children', but the feasting, jollity and unrealistic but admirable hopes for kindness and peace are all adult concerns.

Boris Zakharin said...

As a religious Jew (in the US), I must second the idea that "BC" and "AD" are not at all neutral. While I'm more relaxed on the subject (I won't be correcting or attacking anyone using those terms, though I'll write and say BCE and CE by default unless I have to follow some standard that specifies otherwise), even Mentioning Jesus is taboo in many religious circles. What to call Christmas is a major question since it's almost impossible not to talk about it when it's a national holiday and part of the culture. But it's worse than that when you think about what "AD" implies. No matter how I do or don't talk about Jesus, he is not "Our Lord" to me.

Re: Celsius, I'm in a unique situation of having to use the term a lot more often than most because, though I'm not a scientist, I *am* part of a family of immigrants from Russia, so in interfamily/community conversations just degrees can be misunderstood. But I was taught that our temperature scale (at the time) was Celsius long before it became "not Fahrenheit", even long before I knew other scales existed, in first grade if memory serves. I was also taught that the English term for this is "centigrade", so it was a bit of an adjustment coming to the US.

Finally, I've never heard of STIs. I had health class in early 1990s in New Jersey and they were STDs then and as far as I knew until reading this post, still are.

David Crosbie said...


But it's worse than that when you think about what "AD" implies.

It implies nothing whatsoever.

BC implies nothing either, although it's relatively easy to remember the words that are the historical source of the term.

But AD is in a totally different league. The original words are in a language once known by all educated people and now known by a minority that's hardly statistically significant.

You have to delve into the history of BC and AD before finding any Christian meaning. But you have to delve into the history of BCE and CE before it makes sense. Unlike other scales, there is no zero, and the reason for this lies in the way it was created by scholars who were Christians.

In the sense you mean, BC and AD are not 'neutral'. But in the same way, BCE and CE are not neutral; they have been bitterly opposed when 'authorities' have tried to oppose them. this article by Boris Johnson is an extreme expression, but many in Britain and other English-speaking countries would agree to some extent. Wikipedia relates that popular outrage prevented the imposition of BCE/CE in the Australian school system. This may not be entirely accurate, but the fact that it is represented at all is significant.

David Crosbie said...

It turns out that Boris Johnson needn't have ranted. The BBC's official line is

Whilst the BBC uses BC and AD like most people as standard terminology it is also possible for individuals to use different terminology if they wish to, particularly as it is now commonly used in historical research.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I would expect to see BCE and CE in professional papers, but BC and AD in normal conversation. I always say and think Celsius, but that is because I was stamped on for saying Centigrade and told very firmly that This Was Wrong (can't remember who by) that I trained myself out of it.

Hope there aren't too many typos in this - I am on my phone and the print is do tiny i can't read what I have written!

David Crosbie said...

There's just been a radio feature on the 'atheist church' (not really) movement. An academic from Lancaster (I think) suggested that the rise might be partly explained by a change in the ambience of Christian churches.

In the past, she judges, they were comfortable and welcoming places to people with no religious belief. Recently, though, church services have become more assertively religious.

This struck me as a clear parallel between
Britain (cf old churches) using Christian language a lot but a comfy space for the non religious
America (cf new churches) where religion proclaims itself.