As a land of immigrants, the USA has no shortage of opportunities for celebrating other people’s patriotism. On St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans dress in green, drink green beer, and sing Danny Boy while tucking in to cabbage and corned beef. The fact that 99% of Irish-Americans have never set foot in Ireland and are blissfully unaware that a real Irishman would never ruin a good beer by putting green coloring in it, has nothing to do with it. The mythological status of an Ireland populated by leprechauns, hard-working farmers, buxom redheads, fiddling gypsies, and thatched cottages will trump over any reality.
Similarly,there are more Americans – or North Americans, as a Mexican friend of mine constantly reminds me – who spend time celebrating Cinqo de Mayo than there are illegal Mexicans in the US.
But there is one gaping hole in the calendar that is a missing opportunity: St. George’s Day. The number of Americans who can claim English heritage is substantial. The original war of independence was not “Americans” versus “English,” but “colonists” versus “imperialists.” Every Fourth of July I get the “this is to celebrate when we Americans whooped your British asses” when the truth is that many of the people doing the whooping were, in fact, English! Until the war ended, it can be argued – and I certainly do – that there were no “Americans,” but a collection of disaffected settlers who decided, rightly, that it was time to go it alone.
Of course, the English are not very good when it comes to celebrating St. George’s Day. Fewer Brits know the actual date of the event (April 23rd) than Americans know St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason, the Brits have never been good at the overt patriotism thing, mistaking patriotism for nationalism, I suspect, and eschewing the former for fear of being thought to be too imperialistic. The legacy of the First and Second World wars made the English wear the face of anti-nationalism, a reaction to the brutal National Socialism of Nazi Germany.
Patriotism is not a bad thing. And for the English, there is no finer statement of patriotism that the words of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II where he delivers the following classic panegyric:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
The OED defines a panegyric as, “A public speech or published text in praise of a person or thing; a laudatory discourse; a eulogy, an encomium.” This particular definition is supported in its first use in 1603 by Samuel Daniels in his A Panegyrike Congratulatorie delivered to the Kings most excellent Maiestie. Interestingly the first recorded performance of Richard II was in 1602, making me wonder if any reports at the time described Gaunt’s speech as a panegyric.
The word comes from the Greek, πανηγυρικός, which refers to a public assembly or festival, often in praise of a particular god. This was a πανήγυρις. Breaking it down further, pan (παν) means all, and agyris (ἂγυρις) is a modified form of the Attic-Ionian agora (ὰγορά) meaning assembly or marketplace. So in essence, a panegyric is a speech fit for all assembled.
Jane Austen was not unfamiliar with the word. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett is talking of Mr. Bingley in positive terms when Austen writes, “This introduced a panegyric from Jane on his diffidence, and the little value he put on his own good qualities.”
And it isn’t a word reserved for stuffy writers and obsessed lexicographers. In Rainbow Six (1998) Tom Clancy wrote, “Popov knocked back four stiff vodkas while watching the local television news, followed by an editorial panegyric to the efficiency of the local police.”
Someone who delivers a panegyric can be called a panegyrist, where the ever-popular and ever-useful Greek suffix, –ist (-ιστῄς) works its magic of turning a word into a noun – in this case to describe someone who delivers a panegyric.
Other uses of the word exist but are pretty rare. The alternative noun, panegyry, popped up in 1602 but then infrequently over the years to the point that it would be hard to find it in modern literature. With a ghit of only 5,300, even the mighty Google asks “Did you mean panegyric?”
So for those of you looking for a weekend panegyric to the Golden Age of movies, why not treat yourself to a viewing of Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, an homage to the art of movie making and a delightful way to spend an evening with your big screen TV.