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Words: Celebrity

DISGRACED RUGBY player Lawrence Dallaglio was vigorously defended by "celebrity lawyer George Carman QC," I read in my Daily Mail.This had me wondering for a while. Which was the celebrity in the case? Was it the celebrated but disgraced sportsman? There are plenty of divorce lawyers, and copyright lawyers, and lawyers specialising in libel actions, so there's no reason why they shouldn't specialise in celebrities too, such as rugby players and the like. It's an accepted phrase, isn't it?

On the other hand, perhaps it was the lawyer himself who was celebrated. Everyone who reads the papers has heard of George Carman while not all the clients he has represented have been celebrities. And there's our increasingly common tendency to use nouns in place of adjectives. You hardly ever hear or read about "industrial figures", for example; it's always "industry figures". (Who knows, we may even end up calling a doctor or surgeon a medicine man, thus dispensing with the adjective medical). You already hear it said that such-and-such a person "has become a celebrity figure", so there's nothing illogical in calling Mr Carman, in this sense, a celebrity lawyer.

But if that was what the Mail meant, couldn't it just have got rid of the ambiguity by putting celebrated? I think not. The correct term for your highly successful legal man, according to the unwritten style book that every popular newspaper reporter carries in his or her head, is surely eminent. "The celebrated lawyer" sounds outdated and wrong. It did very well in the novels of Dickens and Trollope, and even, until a few decades ago, in the columns of the broadsheet dailies, but it really died when lawyers stopped going about in wing collars and spats.

I had imagined that celebrity, meaning a famous or fashionable person, rather than the fame itself, was a modern invention. The dictionary tells me otherwise. The word was already being used in this way 150 years ago, though in a rather sneering tone, to judge by the handful of authors cited in the OED; they include Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote about "one of the celebrities of wealth and fashion" he'd met over here in 1847. The implication then, as it often still is now, was that being a celebrity might be all very well but there wasn't much merit in it.

This accords with the origin of the word. The Latin celeber meant "crowded". It was the opposite of desertus. All an aspiring celeb had to do was to fill the arena. A celebratio was a large assembly; the Elizabethans took over the Latin word and gave it a religious slant, because the occasion when large numbers of people were gathered together was mostly likely to be a marriage, or a service of Holy Communion, which is why the priest who does the business at the Eucharist is still called the celebrant.

Today the biggest assemblies are presided over by pop stars, so it makes etymological sense to call them celebrities, or pullers of crowds. But celebrate has lost its old connotation with large numbers. It can be done by as few as two people, unless they've forgotten the corkscrew.