Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Abstract Compound Noun Based Upon a Transitive Verb and Its Direct Object Day!

Happy Turkey Day!

No, no, no!

Let's not let Thanksgiving get away from us. We have the ubiquitous and banal "Happy Holidays" and Santa Claus for Christmas. We have the Easter Bunny and egg hunts for Resurrection Sunday. We have Halloween. But let us not give up the purity of Thanksgiving by downgrading it to commemorate only the carnal, when we ought to remember the spiritual.

Thanksgiving is an abstract noun -- a noun, like love and peace, that is intangible. It is also a compound noun, made up of two stand-alone words. The second word in the compound is a gerund -- a noun based upon a verb. The verb upon which it is based is a transitive verb -- a verb which needs to be paired with an object in order to make sense. Ain't English fun?

What I am saying here is that there is a lot packed into the abstract, proper noun we have given to a holiday celebrated the fourth Thursday in November across America.

When you give thanks, "give" is the transitive verb, and "thanks" is its direct object. But, implied between them -- though often not stated outright -- is a pesky indirect object. That is the "to whom" of the statement. You simply cannot "give" something without someone on the other end. And it is the indirect object that will be the stumbling block for so many.

You cannot give thanks without have someone to receive them. You do not sit down to write a thank-you note without an intended recipient. You can give chocolate bars out all day, but, unless you find someone to take them, you'll be no poorer in chocolate at the end of the day than you were at the beginning. To some people, this is not a bad proposition. But, in order for words to have meaning, we must know what we mean when we say them. That is why it was so funny to hear Michael Medved interviewing a spokesman from the American Humanist Society on the radio last week.

Mr. Medved asked the man whether he would be celebrating Thanksgiving in a couple days. The man said, yes, of course he would. Mr. Medved then asked him who he would be thanking on the holiday. The man said that he would be giving thanks for his family and his country and all the other warm and fuzzies. Mr. Medved probed him: Yes, but whom will you be thanking? The man was slightly confused and said he was thankful for all those things in his life, but that he wasn't thanking anyone in particular for them. Mr. Medved pressed the point that when you feel thankful, those thanks are meant for a particular person. The humanist answered that a general feeling of thankfulness needed no other entity involved. Mr. Medved, in the interest of pacing, let the matter drop there.

If you are thankful (adjective) you are, quite literally, full of thanks. "Thanks" is another noun based upon a verb. To be full of thanks means that you have had your fill of the action of thanking. Thanking is another transitive verb, this one needs only a direct object -- whom or what are you thanking? Oh, well, I'm not actually thanking anyone -- I am merely giving thanks in a general, non-committal, non-theistic sort of way. Ah, but implied in the verb "to give" is that vexing old indirect object. You can leave him out, but he is there nonetheless. The Pilgrim settlers knew to Whom they gave thanks; Abraham Lincoln knew to Whom he was giving thanks; and, despite the increasing secularization of our society, more than 80% of Americans know to Whom they will give thanks this Thanksgiving Day.

Now, that is not to say that you cannot give thanks to others as well on Thanksgiving Day. You can, if you choose, give thanks to your parents for bringing you into this world; you can give thanks to your wife for cooking a delicious dinner; you can give thanks to your husband for busting his arse day after day to provide for your family. And these are all well and good. But, to pretend that the holiday (contracted from "holy day") of Thanksgiving in America was founded to be anything other than a day set aside so that we can, as a nation, pause together to thank our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer for all the nouns that fill our lives -- tangible and intangible -- is to blind ourselves in a highly comical way. I suspect that our humanist friend on the radio did not wish to say that his thanks is given to his friends and family because he, like every human, has eternity written on his heart and knows that -- while thanks for the immediate things of this world can often be given to other people -- the great and good and breathtaking things can only be attributed to God.

So, let us not forget all the meaning crammed into that delightfully complex noun, thanksgiving. And, please, let us not give into the temptation to strip another holiday of its spiritual implications by employing the cute, but carnal, salutation, "Happy Turkey Day!"

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