A reader sent this note to our editors today:
You make this mistake almost every time a local team wins a title or tournament, so please teach your writers and editors the difference. A celebrant is someone who performs religious rites. A celebrator is someone partying and having a good time. In your article on damage to Franklin Street (page 8A), you refer to partying UNC students as "celebrants." Wrong! They are celebrators!
Indeed, the Associated Press Stylebook makes that distinction. It says, "Use celebrator for someone having a good time." Theodore M. Bernstein's "The Careful Writer" also advises writers to reserve celebrant for "one who participates in a religious rite." Bernstein appears to be the usage expert who brought this issue to everyone's attention, according to the editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.
R.W. Burchfield's "Fowler's Modern English Usage" notes that British English generally reserves celebrant for the religious context, but that American English has used celebrant to mean celebrator since the 1930s. Burchfield doesn't disdain the usage. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says celebrant and celebrator are both in "reputable use, with 'celebrant' slightly more frequent."
In fact if a writer looking for guidance turned to a dictionary, he or she would find both usages. In the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, the first definition for celebrant is "a participant in any celebration." The second definition refers to the officiating priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. Webster's New World College Dictionary gives the religious rite definition first and the general celebration definition second. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says a celebrant is "one who celebrates; specifically, the priest officiating at the Eucharist."
Of course, the fact that the AP Stylebook calls for celebrator for the general use trumps all for those of us who follow that style. I like the advice given in the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: "The distinction is worth preserving." But I can certainly see how smart people could choose to use celebrants for those happy folks on Franklin Street, and I myself didn't stop on that word as I read the paper. I am glad the reader sent the note to remind us that some people still recognize the difference.