In case my choice gives offense, I admit–and dare hope–that most students will do community service, visit family, or engage in healthy and safe activities during their Spring Breaks. In my experience, I was too poor to go anywhere except right home.
Such a low-key respite from schoolwork is not, however, the reputation of the annual student holiday. In fact, we have an ancient and sacred ancestor for today’s decidedly profane revelries, a term that managed to survive two millennia without much alteration: Bacchanalia. Bacchus, the Roman god of “wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy” (Wikipedia), survives as well; he seems a less dangerous re-branding of the Greek Dionysus. In those earlier rites, people got ripped limb from limb by the followers of the god.
Bacchus’ festivals, purportedly still celebrated at every Spring Break hotspot, can be dangerous indeed. This must account for the negative sense in which the term and its synonym “bacchanal” have been used during my lifetime. As recently as 2016, at my alma mater The University of Virginia, an article in The Cavalier Daily reported on “this year’s Block Party — an unsanctioned bacchanal which took place on Wertland Street last Saturday.”
I leave the nature of the rites that constitute “excess,” up to readers’ discretion. More than one martini constitutes excess to me, these days, if not the drunken disasters so often synonymous with Bacchanalia. The OED Online traces that sense of the word, a secular version of the ancient partying, to the 17th Century. My other dictionaries also raise a glass in the same direction.
If you engage in singing about drinking, you will also be singing a “Bacchanal” or “Bacchanalia.” Those usages seem as lost to us now as the proverbial lost weekend.
So have a safe and sober Spring Break. Remember, as poet, printer, and mystic William Blake wrote, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But only if you make it that far.
Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
See all of our Words of the Week here.