Years ago a colleague shared with me his disdain for the "abbreviated" form Xmas for the word Christmas. He doesn't appreciate a spelling that takes "Christ" out of the word. This same concern has become Bill O'Reilly's yearly rant-motive, adopted and amplified by headlines and television reports. The latest focus is on a poll created by Zogby's that claims that people are more offended by the phrase "Happy Holidays" than by the phrase "Merry Christmas." Geoff Nunberg at Language Log posted a nice analysis of the poll to show how its wording and organization has likely contributed to a desired outcome.
Here's my précis of the post: The poll supplies more answers that acknowledge even a slight offense than no offense at all at the phrase "Happy Holidays". The poll loads the questions by implying or claiming a motive for those who use the phrase "Happy Holidays".
Maybe we should start calling them the "H-words". "Holiday" has religious meaning anyway. So there should be no such thing as a government holiday. That's establishmentarian.
Let's take these proto-rhetorical techniques to the extremes to show how they might affect the numbers. Here's a one question poll meant to show how people feel about Merry Christmas -vs- Happy Hol...I mean the H-words.
Q: Which of these statements best describes your opinion?
This poll offers answers that support both "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays".
My guess is that answers that show tolerance for "Merry Christmas" are more likely to be chosen. I would then have to release the findings of my poll with the summary saying "More respondents answered that the phrase Merry Christmas is not at all offensive to them or that Happy Holidays is at least somewhat annoying."
Language history bit:
Typical English vowel changes have led to the pronunciation [howlɪ] from OE hálig. Our pronunciation of holiday has not observed the usual [a:]>[o] change. It has preserved the vowel quality just as northern ME dialects did. This is not likely an effect of a preserved northern pronunciation. In the combined form the vowel retained its pronunciation [halɪdej] even in non-northern ME dialects. There might be several reasons for this--among them is the distinction between holy day with religious denotation and holiday without it. But that's research that I'll have to do later. Right now I'm on holi-... vacation.
Oh yes. Regarding my friend who believes Xmas takes Christ out of Christmas: he's only right as far as the orthography. As I understand his complaint he means that it secularises the day for the sake of a quicker spelling. But the X is probably symbolic of the cross. So the 'X' spelling could serve the pious Christian as a reminder of the birth and significance of the life to follow. Etymology can help us all learn to see past that which at first looks evil. Can I hear an 'amen'? (Or is it 'omen'?)