Chunk of the day: a rite of passage

Generally speaking, I’m not one for complaining about people’s use of language, and certainly not those supposed transgressions of grammar rules such as using like when reporting speech, saying there were less people than expected, or that people are loving it. If you’ve ever seen Hugh’s comments on the English Questions Answered group on Facebook, you’ll know he shares this view as well. My attitude is basically that language seems to have a life of its own and changes in ways we can’t really control, so it’s best to just learn to live with it. Having said that, and at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, it is … um …. interesting to see how certain words and phrases seem to slip in their meaning to the point of becoming almost meaningless. Take, for instance, a rite of passage.

When I was at university, one of the options I took in my degree programme was a course in anthropology. On that course, I learnt about the concept of a rite of passage – where societies had certain ceremonies to mark a moment in a person’s life and through this, they changed their status – became a different person. The obvious ones, of course, are birth, marriage and death, but the ones we seemed to focus most on in our studies were the coming-of-age or initiation ceremonies that marked a child’s move into adulthood.

If you have ever watched the National Geographic channel or seen any of Bruce Parry’s series Tribe, you will be familiar with why this might be the case. Many of these ceremonies involve some kind of isolation, a dangerous journey, immense pain or mind-altering drugs – and often a combination of all four. With all that and a good party to top it off, it certainly makes for very good telly – and I guess back in the day, the mere thought of putting your hands in gloves full of stinging ants or having sensitive parts of your body lopped off was enough to stop us sleeping in lectures.

Browsing the Internet now, though, it seems that rites of passage have become rather more diffuse and certainly less dramatic. A quick Google throws up the following examples:

  • summer internships have become a rite of passage for college students
  • regulatory maxes (whatever they are!) have become a rite of passage for start-ups
  • instant sell-outs have become a rite of passage for big stars (It’s a hard life …)
  • school proms have become a rite of passage for teenagers
  • the ice bath has become a rite of passage for runners
  • orthodontic braces have become a rite of passage for many kids
  • owning a boat seems to have become a rite of passage within the past few years
  • writing your first email has become a rite of passage for Generation Z
  • double eyelid surgery has become a rite of passage for many South Korean youths
  • publishing a book has become a rite of passage for chefs

Rites of passage here seem to have been reduced to a bad experience; a somewhat painful stage you go through; the first time you do something (writing an email!); a sign that you have made it; or simply something you bought (owning a boat?!). In most cases, we seem to have also forgotten about the party altogether!

So what’s going on? Well, maybe one reason for all of this is that we are a rather more fragmented society these days compared to the tribal groups I studied in anthropology. Rather than everyone being uniform and doing the same things at the same moment in the same ways, people demand individuality. Additionally, we are also forming smaller groups (celebrity chefs, for example!) which have their own rites for entry. Alongside that, we maybe don’t celebrate some of those more major steps in life as much, especially when people have lost their religion: people often don’t get married at all or if they do, they just pop into a registry office and tie the knot with as little fuss as possible; if you have a baby, you just get a few cards to congratulate you; someone dies – maybe you pull on your black suit or dress for the funeral and that’s more or less it. If we place less significance on these events, then perhaps it’s easier to see greater significance in others.

In a series for Channel 4, the artist Grayson Perry mourned this state of affairs and suggested we should try to re-imagine rites of passage around birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death and imbue them with more meaning. Perry drew on anthropology himself as one of the field’s great lessons is that there are many ways of celebrating these things and nothing has to be set in stone. Alternatively, perhaps we could make more of these newer rites of passage. Maybe those young people who have never written an email should have to walk barefoot down a corridor covered in drawing pins in order to get to their office. Their first message could then be to invite all their colleagues to a party paid for out of their first pay cheque! I can’t see it happening, but it would at least rate as a proper rite of passage.


  • Can you think of any other words or phrases that have changed meaning or are becoming overused and meaningless?
  • Which of the Google examples are closest to the original idea of a rite of passage? In what way?
  • How much are the traditional rites of passage celebrated where you are? Have you celebrated any of them? How?
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2 Responses

  1. Larisa says:

    I took part in 2 rites of passage – the ceremony of Christening for my friend’s kids (Iam their Codmother). Also weddingd and funerals, of course.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      I’m guessing you mean you’e their GODmother – unless there’s some anicent ritual involving COD fish!! )))

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