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Strictly speaking, from an etymological standpoint, there is no reason to suppose "commemorate" should imply either a positive or negative connotation of what is being remembered. That said, it feels a bit weird to say, "We commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah," because it seems that "commemorate" is in fact slightly marked to imply memoration of a positive event.

(1) Is "commemorate" in fact value-neutral? In any case, is it best used in collocation with positive events?

(Ideally, please provide citations from high-quality writing to support a liberal position on this.)

(2) What would be a better word to use with a bad event?

  • You can, eg, commemorate the sinking of the Titanic. I don't think that's considered a "positive" event. – Hot Licks May 5 '16 at 22:46
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    Not an answer to your interesting questions, but the fact that it can be modified (with solemn/ly, for ex.) to cover sad events might imply that it's neutral, or at least capable, w/modification, of covering sad ones. – Papa Poule Aug 16 '16 at 17:06
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Commemorate by definition is not "value-neutral".

Commemorate

  1. Recall and show respect for (someone or something) in a ceremony.
    "A wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the war dead."

  2. Serve as a memorial to.
    "A stone commemorating a boy who died at sea"

  3. Celebrate (an event, a person, or a situation) by doing or building something.

All three definitions are "positive", in that they remember something "good"; i.e. You don't commemorate the Holocaust (unless you think it was a good idea), you commemorate Holocaust victims ("they were 'good' people that died terribly and to make sure something similar doesn't happen again we remember/pay respects to them").

The quality of goodness is very relative. The Nazi's thought the Holocaust was an excellent idea. Obviously everyone else didn't. Had the Nazi's won the Second World War chances are they would commemorate the Holocaust and not the victims, which is opposite to what most countries do today (since the Nazi's lost, their idea of goodness got pretty much wiped off the map). So this can lead to the use of commemorate in situations that may seem backwards to certain people.

Some possible words for the "remembrance of a bad event" could be:

  • Dishonor
  • Admonish
  • Discredit
  • Reprimand
  • Reproach
  • Ridicule
  • Mortify
  • Disregard
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    How can you use "admonish" in this sense? Actually, none of these words fit well in the example sentence. "We reprimand the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah." "We mortify the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah." – herisson May 5 '16 at 23:15
  • Please provide some explanation and justification for your suggested words. – TrevorD May 5 '16 at 23:18
  • There is no word that I could find that is equal to "to remember something terrible", and they seemed like antonyms (or thereabouts) of commemorate. I would think that most people would want to forget something bad, as such there's probably no word that matches this. – user156962 May 5 '16 at 23:23
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Does an event to be remembered get any worse than this? Go here.

The main commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will be held in front of the Death Gate of KL Auschwitz II–Birkenau. On this day – which, for ten years now has been commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day – various anniversary events will be held in many countries: conferences, exhibitions, ceremonies, meetings…

  • Another driveby downvoter, a curse upon this site. If you don't have the common courtesy to provide a reason for your vote, consider that you leave no opportunity for someone to correct a wrong answer and you leave readers with the impression that a correct answer is lacking. – deadrat May 6 '16 at 8:37
  • I wasn't the downvoter. I will say that the liberation of Auschwitz was indeed a happy event, so this is not a great example of what not to commemorate. The second sentence of your quote is a little weaselly a use in light of this specific issue, I think. Still seeking a citation from high-quality writing. – SAH May 22 '16 at 18:41
  • If you think the liberation of Auschwitz was a happy event, I suggest you do a little more reading on the subject. I have no idea what you mean by "weaselly" "in light of" this issue. Is it that the second sentence directly contradicts your notion of how the word commemorate should be used? So sorry that the English of Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu doesn't meet your standards of quality writing. – deadrat May 22 '16 at 19:25
  • I stand corrected; there was nothing happy in 1945. The second sentence's use of "commemorate" is oddly both redundant and overdetermined. I would not call this good writing. – SAH May 25 '16 at 0:46
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Sure, but offering up a remembrance might be more fitting:

re·mem·brance
rəˈmembrəns
(noun)

    the action of remembering the dead, especially in a ceremony
1

Commemorate is the best available term. Note the prefix Co-, this makes it a group memorial. As in: our group must never forget this extraordinary thing, terrible, or marvelous, as it was.

Group Memory (or commemoration) precedes factions, and factions precede neutrality, (preceding the need for it). Just as a single comma is not a sonnet, nor good or bad.

  • Interesting answer; I wonder why there are two m-s? And, while there is theoretical support for your position, can you find an example in which a good writer made this choice? – SAH May 22 '16 at 18:43
  • @SAH, on orthography: the two ms might as well be a valid new question. Sorry, the 2nd question isn't clear: a good writer made this choice -- which choice? – agc May 23 '16 at 14:16
  • Sorry -- I meant the choice to use "commemorate" with something negative. – SAH May 25 '16 at 0:48
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    @SAH, Bartleby.com offers text search of English classics; where we find: "From Salt Lake the chief trail west led down the Humboldt River to the Sierra and over that mighty barrier by what became known as Donner Pass to commemorate the Donner party and the shocking result of their miscalculation..." -Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900 – agc May 25 '16 at 5:53
  • Thanks; this is a better example than previous. Still, I wonder if there is any example of this usage to be found within belles lettres. – SAH May 25 '16 at 9:15
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Commemorate is the best term to use.

Bear in mind you commemorate the past event - not the anniversary.

So you would commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, which happened 70 years ago.

However, you would not commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

  • Welcome to ELU, can you add some objective sources to substantiate your answer? – Helmar Aug 16 '16 at 20:55

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