Today marks my stepson’s final exam of his high school career. This morning, he announced his plans to treat himself to a particular type of hamburger at a particular fast food restaurant near his school once his exam was over. He explained that this was his tradition—he always goes for this burger after he finishes writing his exams.
Word nerd that I am, something about his use of tradition niggled at me. Long after he’d left for school, I found myself wondering if what he was describing was a ritual rather than a tradition. Of course, I had to look it up. So I thought I would share what I found out with all of you.
The word ritual, used as a noun, first appeared in English sometime in the 1640s. It came from the adjective of the same spelling, which, in turn, came from the Latin word ritualis, used to described things pertaining to religious rites.
Ritual can refer to a religious or solemn ceremony involving of a series of actions performed in a prescribed order. It can also refer to a series of actions or behaviours habitually and consistently followed by someone.
- Sally’s pre-vampire hunting ritual involved eating three cloves of garlic, polishing her stakes, and spritzing herself with holy water while listening to Professor van Helsing’s audiobook.
The word tradition appeared in English in the late 1300s. It came from the Old French word tradicion, which referred to a presentation or a handing over. Tradicion, in turn, came from the Latin word traditionem, which referred to a surrender, a handing down, or a giving up. It was formed by adding the word dare, meaning to give, to the stem trans-, meaning over.
Tradition can refer to the passing down of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. It can also refer to the custom or belief that has been passed down. And it can sometimes refer to an artistic or literary style, established by a particular artist or writer, which is then followed by others.
- No matter how hungry they were, before eating a human, the Dracula family joined hands and said words of thanks to the Dark Lord, as had been the tradition for hundreds of years.
So, let’s go back to the case of my stepson and his hamburger. If students at his school have been going to the same restaurant and ordering the same hamburger for several years, it could be considered a tradition. But, if it is something that he does on his own every semester, once his exams are finished, then it’s a ritual.