Saturday, June 18, 2011

fathers day reflections

A version of this article appeared in the Globe & Mail on June 17,2011

Lexical Father’s Day reflections


Howard Richler

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.

But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Mark Twain

Let’s face it, fellow dads: Father’s Day does not have the profile of Mother’s Day. Even on the eve of Our Day, Mom’s day outgoogles Dad’s day 200 million to 151 million and according to commercial calculations, Mother’s Day, generates almost 50% more in sales than its xy partner in conception. On the other hand, lads, let’s keep our peckers up and refrain from diluting our brew with maudlin tears, because there are some lexical advantages to being male.

Most importantly, there is no term in English that recognizes the right of a woman to kill her husband. We have the word “uxoricide,” which entered our lexicon in the mid 19th century to refer to the murder of a wife by her husband but (so far-phew!) no word to describe the legitimate or illegitimate murder of a husband is recorded in any non-feminist dictionary. So ladies, remember that from a lexical perspective while the English language will countenance you killing your mother (matricide), your sister (sororicide), your brother (fratricide) , your kids (filicide), your father, (patricide), and even your boar, oxen and cook (apricide, bovicide & coquicide), that offing your husband is verboten.

Aside from not possessing a word that legitimizes “husband-whacking,” there are several other lexical advantages to being male. To extend Simon & Garfunkle’s schema, I’d rather be a hammer, major, and governor than a nail, majorette and governess. Also, as a male, I can be described as avuncular, which means resembling an uncle, with connotations of being friendly, helpful and good-humoured, whereas a woman can only be so described by the inferior-sounding “aunt-like.” “Avuncular” derives from the Latin avunculus maternal uncle,” and there is no equivalent word whose etymology derives from a paternal aunt.

Notwithstanding that maternity is a matter of fact and paternity often a matter of opinion, men easily outdistance woman in their ability to pass on surnames based on their chromosomal arrangement. The term patronymic” receives 2,810,00 Google hits; whereas matronymic receives a measly 59,700. Patronymics, names derived from a male’s ancestors, such as Robertson. Hansen, Ivanov, Mackenzie, and O’Connor are very common. On the other hand, whereas matronymics such as Beaton, Dworkin (named after Devorah) or Rifkin (named after Rivka) are quite rare.

Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that Father’s Day was established as a result of effective lobbying by the Hallmark Corporation just as Halloween was created from pressure extracted by dentists. In fact, when the holiday was proposed, there was no such thing as a Father's Day card. American Louise Sonora Smart Dodd first proposed the idea of a father's day in 1909. Mrs. Dodd wanted a special day to honour her father, William Smart, who became widowed when his wife (Mrs. Dodd's mother) died in childbirth with their sixth child. He raised the newborn and his other five children by himself on a rural farm in eastern Washington state. It was after Mrs. Dodd became an adult that she realized the strength and selflessness her father had displayed in rearing his children as a single parent.

The first Father's Day was observed on June 19, 1910 in Spokane, Washington. At about the same time in various cities across America, other people were beginning to celebrate a father's day. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge supported the idea of a national Father's Day. Finally, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation declaring the third Sunday of June as Father's Day.

Father’s Day, however, was not widely celebrated in the US until the mid 1930s and was not recorded in print before 1943. In Canada, the holiday gained status in the late ‘40s and took hold by the early ‘50s.

Enjoy your customized beer mug, guy.

My latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

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