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Is it appropriate (and culturally sensitive) to use the term christen in a sentence such as:

The building was christened the Stone Center in memory of Dr. Stone, whose research made it possible.

Some dictionaries say that christened means just to name something, while other dictionaries and web searches only bring up the sense of giving a person their Christian name.

Perhaps christening the Stone Center has the second problem that Stone is a last name, not a Christian name?

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    Merriam-Webster gives several examples. Whether it's culturally-sensitive will vary. I wouldn't use it of a Jewish center. And there's no reason you can't use the verb to name instead (at least in this context).
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 3 at 12:52
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    Did they hit the building with a bottle of champagne? Commented May 3 at 14:50
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    @StuartF, christen may be more suitable than name is one want to suggest that some formal ceremony was involved.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 3 at 15:56
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    @EdwinAshworth The alternative is to let them bogart the word. Commented May 3 at 18:49
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    "Entirely non-religious" is a tough request in a culture and language intimately linked to various religions. Of which this word is a prime example. Commented May 4 at 11:49

5 Answers 5

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It is used all the time for the initial naming of a variety of objects, such as ships, buildings, even cars. Just because a word has its roots in Christianity, does not mean that its usage implies Christianity.

Although I am Indian, I do not regard it as offensive, or "Christian" to use the word christened.

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    This is probably true, but it's also possible that some people will object. Commented May 3 at 17:01
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    @DJClayworth: some people object to asserting that the world isn’t flat.
    – jmoreno
    Commented May 3 at 22:11
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    @DJClayworth I've never heard of anyone objecting. It's the common term for when they name a ship and crack a bottle of champagne across its bow, they'll say "I christen thee <the name>". I guess the champagne is considered the secular analogue of holy water.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 4 at 21:47
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    @Barmar Don't try using it for a mosque. Commented May 4 at 23:26
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    @Rohit_Gupta: "Although I am Indian, I do not regard it as offensive" - Did you mean to say, "Although I am Hindu"? If not, why would your ethnicity potentially make the word offensive?
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented May 6 at 3:14
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It's common usage. It will be accepted. Some will find it annoying, especially if the ritual doesn't include something like breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow.

There are probably better words for the purpose, such as inaugurate.

"Real writers rewrite to avoid the problem."

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  • ... Good advice. Commented May 5 at 15:07
  • If you are trying to make it less confusing, I would suggest "named" over "inaugurated". Commented May 6 at 7:38
  • Depends on context. Naming is not the only thing referred to analogously as christening. Which may be another reason for avoiding the latter word.
    – keshlam
    Commented May 6 at 11:21
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Slightly crude, but a good example nonetheless:

In the UK, "to christen the toilet" is to use the bathroom for the first time after moving into a property.

So yes, "christen" can definitely be used to describe non-Christian things.

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    I think your example is at least partially a humorous analogy to the Christian ceremony, in that it involves splashing something with water. It's not really about naming, though. Commented May 4 at 10:10
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    Also, after moving in you can christen the bed (or other pieces of furniture) by making love in it for the first time.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 4 at 21:45
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    "dedicate (a vessel, building, etc.) ceremonially." - I've christened every toilet I've ever installed; gotta make sure it works.
    – Mazura
    Commented May 5 at 2:08
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    Back in primary school, when a kid got a new pair of sneakers (usually white coz hundreds of years ago), it was de rigueur for the other kids to 'christen' the new shoes by stomping on them to make them look used.
    – mcalex
    Commented May 6 at 3:57
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    In my experience, this concept can be applied to first usage of pretty much anything, especially if it involves getting that thing dirty.
    – MikeB
    Commented May 6 at 11:54
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Christen/baptize is often used in the sense to name. In this sense it is no different from expressions it is (not) kosher or it is not very Catholic used to designate that something is (not) done according to the rules or with the necessary level of rigor - often in the contexts that have nothing to do with food or religion.

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The English christen comes from Greek christos which literally means anointed (originally, with perfumed oil). The word came to be used in reference to dedicating a ship through the custom of breaking a bottle of wine over the hull of the ship--literally christening (anointing) the ship with wine.

A ship would be christened with wine for some of the same reasons a newborn child would be christened through baptism in the Catholic church. A child's christening ceremony would also serve as a way of introducing the child to the community. Christening a ship is similar in that way, but unlike with a baby, christening a ship is not a religious ceremony.

While English speakers might not use the word christen every day, its meaning is not obscure, and christening things (literally by breaking a bottle over them, or figuratively with a small dedication ceremony) would certainly be understood today and would not imply any religious meaning.

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  • Not just the Catholic Church!! Commented May 7 at 9:23
  • Of course, but I was referring to how the term came to be used in reference to ships. In those years, the Catholic church was the only game in town.
    – wberry
    Commented May 7 at 20:31

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