Memorial Day Word Origins

Memorial Day was originally set aside to honor the Civil War dead from the North by decorating their graves with flowers and it at first was called "Decoration Day." In 1866, the first commemorations were held in Waterloo, New York, and in Columbus, Mississippi. The American flag was flown at half-staff and a veterans" parade marched to the village cemetery, where patriotic speeches were given. The first national Decoration Day was held on May 30, 1868 by Union Army veterans known as the Grand Army of the Republic. The May 30 date was close to the date of the final surrender of the Confederate Army (May 26, 1865). The Southern states started remembering their soldiers on a Confederate Memorial Day on various dates. After World War I, the American Legion took over the observance, renaming it Memorial Day, setting it for the last Monday in May, and dedicating in the honor of all those who died in U.S. wars. Some southern states continue to observe a separate day to honor the Confederate dead.

Memorial Day is observed with the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, and by religious services, parades, and speeches nationwide. Flags, insignia, and flowers are placed on the graves of veterans in local cemeteries.

The word decoration comes from Latin decorationem, from decorare, "to adorn or beautify." The practice of decorating graves with flowers and wreathes began during the Civil War, so it became a natural part of the observance. In Columbus, Mississippi, where both Union and Confederate soldiers were honored in 1866, the strewing of flowers on the graves became a symbol of friendship and understanding between the North and the South.

A flag as a piece of cloth used as a standard, signal, or symbol in English dates to the late 15th century. The word may be an onomatopoeic representation for such a cloth flapping in the wind, but the origin remains obscured. As far as the American flag goes, there are many theories about its origin, with the story of Betsy Ross being the most famous. On Memorial Day, the flag is flown at half-mast, a symbol of mourning, from sunrise until noon, and at full staff from noon until sunset.

The word grave as a place of burial dates to c 1000, though the verb form (now obsolete) meaning "to dig," may have come first and is of Germanic origin.

We know a patriot to be one who loves his or her country and is keenly interested in promoting the welfare of the country. It was not used in this sense until 1605, with its original use being " a fellow countryman or compatriot" (now obsolete). The word came into English from French and earlier from Latin patriota, "fellow countryman" and Greek patris meaning "one's fatherland."

Red paper poppies are used to symbolize war dead because real poppies bloomed everywhere in the battle graveyards of France. The Veterans of Foreign Wars had their first paper "poppy sale" in 1922 to raise money for disabled and destitute veterans. At one time, many people referred to Memorial Day as "Poppy Day." The poppy was first recorded in English around 700, from Latin papaver, which may be related to Latin papula, "papule," as the flower contains rounded capsules which contain many small round seeds. This herbal plant or flower of the genus Papaver grows in temperate and subtropical regions.

War, first coming into Old English (c 1154) as werre or warre, from Anglo-Norman French, is ultimately of Germanic origin.

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