Those of us of a certain age will remember a cartoon called Beavis and Butthead that ran on MTV. What made Beavis and Butthead funny — and embarrassing — was how perfect a caricature of 13-year-old boys it was, at the age when exploiting syntactic ambiguities was comedy and tricking your friends into purported admissions of masturbation was unmatched hilarity.
Of course, it was embarrassing because, with a few exceptions, 13-year-old boys generally outgrow that phase and generally don’t want to remember it.
But the impulse never really goes away, and syntax without semantics continues to be a source of amusement — and classroom examples in artificial intelligence class. (The classic, of course, is the comparison of “time flies like an arrow” and “fruit flies like a banana.”)
Which brings us to this weekend’s social media madness: the outrage over the phrase “Easter worshippers.” Let’s examine that with some comparisons: Easter Bunny, Easter Sunday, Easter egg, Easter bonnet, Easter parade — and the Judy Garland movie “Easter Parade” — Easter service.
Think back to English classes, and it’s clear that “Easter” is being used as an adjective to modify the noun to refer specifically to something having to do with Easter. Every English speaker (almost every English speaker, at least) knows that “Easter” is a Christian holiday or festival that comes in Spring every year; “Easter bunny”, “Easter bonnet”, “Easter Parade”, all refer to something specifically connected to the Christian holiday.
None of them have to be modified to specify what religion they’re citing.
Jews don’t celebrate the Resurrection, there’s no Jewish Easter.
Buddhists don’t have Easter worship, not even at my Buddhist temple that we old-timers still call the “Buddhist Church” from the days when Sunday School classes sang “Buddha loves me, this I know”. (Japanese tradition, and we used to try really hard to fit in, following the internment and all that.)
Zoroastrian Easter is not a thing.
Yet somehow, suddenly, “Easter worshippers” has become ambiguous. Is it a reference to worshippers on the Christian holiday? Or are they people who, you know, worship Easter?
I dug into Google a bit, and had no trouble finding, for example, Christian music publishers advertising “Music for Easter worshippers”. I found an article referring to the events “Woodlands worshippers” had planned for Easter. And no one in Colorado would hesitate for a second at a headline that said: “Red Rocks Worshippers Celebrate Easter Sunrise Service.” No one would interpret that as claiming Christians sing songs to worship Easter, that a church in Woodlands is worshipping the town, or that anyone is worshipping Red Rocks.
Or the headline from yesterday “Tourists, Notre Dame worshippers, upset.”
Beavis used to make great use of this sort of joke: “you said,” followed by something that could be considered, in a great stretch of the imagination, off-color. Followed by the famous extended adolescent snigger. And everyone over about 14 knew it was, how you say? Lame.
But now we get social media. It apparently started with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama referring to the “Easter worshippers” in Sri Lanka. Suspicious? Maybe. As a sign of groupthink. I personally suspect that if we go back and look, an AP or Reuter’s story used the phrase in a headline that was then picked up by social media.
Then someone, who knows who, had a Beavis moment and decided they were purposefully omitting “Christian” from their tweet. (Leaving me to wonder at the time, “Who else worships on Easter?”)
And then it became A Thing. “I’ve never heard ‘Easter worshippers’ before!” Maybe not, although I’d bet against it. But I’d also bet that you had no trouble understanding my hypothetical Red Rocks headline. The thing is, it’s so completely a normal English construction that I’d bet you never had a reason to pay any attention until the Beavis Interpretation was lodged in your brain.
Once it was around and on social media, though, otherwise sensible people were suddenly being outraged by it. It became what is known, technically, as a meme — not a picture with an amusing caption, but an idea that propagates from person to person through a culture. In other words, groupthink.
Do any of you remember the outrage when Trump referred in a proclamation to “African American History Month”? It was outrageous — when did it stop being “Black History Month”? Racist!
Of course, all of the previous proclamations, including Obama’s, had referred to “African American History Month” because, well, that’s the formal name.
Or remember Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house? Except, of course, she didn’t, that was a Saturday Night Live sketch.
We properly make fun of those. But now too many people are falling for the same phenomenon, and tweeting in outrage instead of stopping to think.
I’m sure there’s no stopping it now; there are too many people sniggering “heh heh heh they didn’t say ‘Christian’!”
Maybe, when the sniggering dies down, we can learn something from it.