Why do we say that we "observe traditions" rather than "following traditions" or some other term?


It comes from 'observance' rather than 'observation'. The etymological roots, according to dictionary.com are:

Word Origin & History

observance early 13c., "act performed in accordance with prescribed usage," esp. a religious or ceremonial one," from O.Fr. observance, from L. observantia "act of keeping customs, attention," from observantem (nom. observans), prp. of observare (see observe). Observance is the attending to and carrying out of a duty or rule. Observation is watching, noticing.

Whereas the religious connotations are not as prevalent as they were in increasingly secular societies, the usage still carries over with reference to commemorations, eg


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  • That seems to be the most precise answer. – Moogle Mar 2 '14 at 21:24
  • Didn't the Latin Christian version derive from their reading of Hebrew scriptures? Did "observe" in Latin carry that meaning in pre-Christian Latin? – Blessed Geek Mar 9 '14 at 7:21

As far as my tradition goes, I believe we are the perpetrators of the usage of "observe", abetted by Bible-observant Christians.

There may be other avenues, but as far as I am aware, this is due to the Hebrew part of the Bible (and some Aramaic in the book of Daniel).

In Hebrew שמר is the root radical for words like

  • watch
  • guard
  • keep in fulfillment
  • preserve
  • patrol
  • be aware
  • beware

שמר in its root form would mean watch/observe.

The Bible, in Hebrew, is full of references to שמר, but in various forms and inflection. People who read the Bible in Hebrew, or who are very attached to their Strong's Concordance, normally have a obsessive compulsion to be precise about the Hebrew concepts we wish to express in English. Personally, I am following the crowd by using the word observe.

For example, in an important subject such as the Sabbath, we normally want to express its importance in all inflections of שמר.

Shall we say we simply keep the Sabbath? Preserve the Sabbath, fulfill the Sabbath, be aware of her, beware of violations against her? Therefore, we simply say

  • We observe the Sabbath. We are Sabbath-observant.
  • Kosher-observant, or even glatt-observant.

The Christians might say

  • Bible-observant

You might not be aware, but English vocabulary and usage has had very significant influence from the Bible.

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One of the meanings of 'observe' in Oxford Dictionaries is: 'fulfil or comply with'.

I am not sure if we 'fulfil' but we certainly 'comply with' tradition.

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  • In Judaism there is the underlying concept of the covenant with God. And, in observing The Torah (i.e Talmudic Law's interpretation of the Torah), we fulfill our portion of the covenant. Judaism is a legal religion (much like Islam, and I suppose Canonical law in Christianity), where the observant see themselves in a contract with God. – David M Mar 2 '14 at 21:25

It turns out the verb (to observe), as most of the english verbs is too broad regarding its meaning, so having said that, it is true one could use a few synonyms to construct a similar statement within the context you mentioned...

A simple research about the verb (to observe) returns a specific meaning of "to watch or be present without participating actively" when used as an intransitive verb: See reference here


"We were invited to the conference solely to observe."

When used as a transitive verb, (to observe) could also mean:

"to abide by, keep, or follow (a custom, tradition, law, holiday, etc)."

I believe the verb to observe is kinda stick to that context because one not always actively "follow traditions", meaning that one does not always actively participate or experience traditions, but rather "observes" them...

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  • 1
    Too broad in it's meaning in what sense? See Blessed Geek's answer: this meaning (and it's synonymity with watch) predates English by millennia. The notion that observing a tradition is a passive experience is twaddle. Watching others and not participating is the opposite of observing the tradition. – David M Mar 2 '14 at 21:43

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