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Reliquary is a receptacle, often made of precious metal and richly decorated, in which a religious relic or relics are kept, as a small box, casket, or shrine.

In this sentence that I copied from OED, why does the OED editor say "relic or relics" instead of "relics"?

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closed as general reference by Kris, FumbleFingers, Roaring Fish, MετάEd, Mark Beadles Oct 26 '12 at 19:38

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

We can only guess. There's nothing wrong syntactically. It does seem pleonastic, but maybe in the context, the author thinks it is salient that sometimes it holds one relic like a special thing, and other times, it's like a chest holding a bunch of relics. – Mitch Oct 26 '12 at 12:48
@Mitch: I think it's just that "religious relics" are supposed to be exceptional things, so any given place/group would probably have at most one anyway. If OED had used only the plural, this could be taken as implying that such relics are commonplace, which would obviously devalue them. – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '12 at 12:54
@FumbleFingers: Yes. It is obviously poor choice of phrasing. So the 'why' question can only be speculative. – Mitch Oct 26 '12 at 12:56
@Mitch: I don't know why you call it "poor choice of phrasing". It seems perfectly okay to me. – FumbleFingers Oct 26 '12 at 13:07
@Mitch: One editor's pleonasm is another editor's careful phrasing. Obviously the person who edited the entry felt it important to draw a scrupulous distinction. – Robusto Oct 26 '12 at 13:52
up vote 4 down vote accepted

In a reliquary, you can keep either:

  • A relic, or
  • several relics.

Here's a sentence fragment with extra markers:

".. in which [a religious relic] or [relics] are kept..."

It could be re-written to be a bit clearer:

".. in which one or more religious relics are kept..."

The OED also says the meanings of relic in the Christian Church is the physical remains (the body or a part) of a holy person, or a thing believed to be sanctified by contact with them. In this case, the plural relics can denote the whole body or just parts of it, and singular relic can be both the relic and receptacle.

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A relic is a remnant of a person (eg a fragment of bone); relics are more than one fragment of a single person. "One or more religious relics" could allow of different persons' relics being put together, which never happens in a reliquary. Consequently OED is strictly correct. – Andrew Leach Oct 26 '12 at 13:44
Wait, I'm not Catholic, and maybe the use of the word "relic" has a narrower meaning in this context. But I thought a relic could also be an artifact associated with a person, like a sliver of the True Cross or the Holy Grail or spear of Antioch, etc. – Jay Oct 26 '12 at 13:57
@AndrewLeach There are many cases where different saints' relics are put together in the same reliquary, particularly martyrs. The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne contains, supposedly, the remains of Ursula and 11,000 virgins. youtube.com/watch?v=9t0qOOiaEYY – choster Oct 26 '12 at 14:34

Are you puzzled by the construct "X or Xes" in general, or by its use in this particular case?

The plural is often taken to include the singular when the number is unspecified. Like if you say, "How many people are in the room?", it is not considered at all strange for someone to reply, "One."

But it's common to list both a singular and a plural when we want to be clear that there might be only one, if someone might otherwise be confused into thinking that there must be more than one. Like, "Find the screw or screws that secure the face plate to the device." This makes clear there might be only one screw; someone might otherwise think you are implying that there are two or more.

I have no idea whether a reliquary typically holds a single relic or many. Apparently the writer of the dictionary entry wants to make clear that it could be either case.

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The particular case only I suspect. – qazwsx Oct 26 '12 at 15:18

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