Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Misuse of religious language.

Posted in Misuse of religious language. by sheelanagigcomedienne on August 2, 2011

I get really pissed off at the way religious language pollutes our everyday speech. I am on a mission to challenge this when I have the energy.  Here are two such occurences of the word christen/christened one is a letter to The Guardian the other is to TATE.

Dear Editor,

I get exasperated at the way that religous terms pollute our language. As a committed atheist/secularist I am on a mission to challenge certain usage/misuse of words – like ‘ to christen’ instead of ‘rename’. In last Saturday’s Review 30th July the fascinating article, on poets and friends –  Frost and Thomas-  refers to Frost’s well known poem – “a poem called “Two Roads”, soon to be rechristened “The Road Not Taken”.  This misuse of the word ‘christen’ galls me as a christening is a religious ritual which is, in effect, an infant exorcism purporting to rid a poor unfortunate baby of the devil and ‘original sin’. This is one reason I became a Humanist celebrant. ( I conducted the funeral for the great Dave Allen)

There are plenty more irritating examples devil, angel, sin, holy ghost, sacred,  hell, heaven, etc etc . Even non-believers/atheists fall into the trap of using phrases like ‘Thank God’  and expleting  Jesus, Christ, Godalmighty etc. The Thesauraus devotes a whole section to religion.  Having been brought up in Ireland I was aware of the names they called atheists like me – heathen, pagan, heretic,infidel, apostate, backslider etc.  I am now sick of the word ‘faith’ being misused as in Faith schools instead of calling them Sectarian schools.

Yours sincerely,


Thank you for your email, which has been passed to me as I edit the Guardian style guide.

The guide contains the following advice, which unfortunately was not followed on this occasion:

christened, christening
only when referring to a Christian baptism: don’t talk about a boat being christened or a football club christening a new stadium; named is fine

Another entry reads:

faith schools
may be called religious schools without fear of divine retribution

With best wishes,
David Marsh, production editor, the Guardian

That was a nice, friendly response, much appreciated. However, I have spotted quite a few more misuses of ‘christen’.

1)  The next one on 4th August  appeared in Monkey Business by Catherine Shoard which mentions an ‘orphaned chimp christened Caesar’.

2)  26th September in G2 by Imogen Fox about animal print cocktail jeans tells us that ‘a cabal of fashion experts has deliciously christened cocktail jeans’

3)  Another on 4th November commited by Marina Hyde  “Do you remember Alex James’s festival, which Lost in Showbiz christened Worstival”

OH DEAR. The Guardian is not a good Guardian of style!


Here is the letter and response from  THE TATE GALLERY.

Dear Members Secretary,

I visited the Romantics exhibition. I immediately noticed the misuse of the word ‘christened’ instead of ‘named’. As I am a Humanist and secularist this always galls me and I challenge those who have written/said it. I am a bit evangelical about challenging this and the way that religious words seep into everyday language. This is why I am writing to you about this and I look forward to your response.
I did buy a Grayson Perry pendant – a piece of affordable art from an artist I love. I appreciated his piss take of the gaudy religious images and especially the creepy reliquaries purporting to be bits of bone, skin, hair etc of saints and Jesus. This did compensate for my irritation about using the word ‘christen’ and I have mentioned it in my Sheela-na-Gig blog.

I am also looking forward to the proposed renovation for an expanded members area.

Yours sincerely,

Jeanne Rathbone


Thank you very much for your email comment. We don’t have an ’official’ position on this, although I am aware that some newspapers do. Your point is well made however and I shall pass it on to my colleagues who advise on questions of style. I shall also make sure that this circulated in our monthly report on visitors’ concerns. I should respectfully point out though that you describe yourself as ‘evangelical’ about this, which just goes to show how ingrained these words are in everyday language!
I am really glad that you like the Grayson Perry pendant and very pleased indeed that you gave it a mention in your blog. The pendant is a very eloquent piece of work and I absolutely understand its attraction.
Thank you again for your time and trouble, I hope that you will continue to support us and to visit and enjoy our exhibitions and displays.
Best wishes
Richard Gray

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