Can you remember what you never knew?

In December of this past year, a fireman died in the line of duty in Worcester, Massachusetts. This was a small tragedy in the larger scheme of things, certainly larger for those closer to him.

One of the local stations ran this news promo, beginning almost immediately and continuing for several weeks once it became part of one of their ‘watch the news’ montage ads (my quoting might not be 100% precise, but it’s very close):

“Family, friends, even total strangers, are now remembering a Worcester firefighter…”

This phrasing immediately caught my attention. It’s very easy to understand family and friends remembering someone. But the third category, “total strangers,” seemed an unlikely group to do any remembering. After all, as strangers, they’d never met this person before and would have no prior memory of him. What could they possibly be remembering?

The sense of the reporting was clear: what the reporter meant was that many people – including strangers – were memorializing the firefighter, or commemorating his life. Is remember an acceptable synonym in this case? Was it actually an incorrect use, or simply awkward?

According to the OED, this definition of remember is valid, it’s simply obscure or at least little used. The closest specific definitions seem to be these:

6.b. To commemorate. Obs. [“obscure”]
6.c. To think of and mention (a person, a person’s circumstances, etc.) in one’s prayers.

American Heritage offers this among their definitions:

3. To keep (someone) in mind as worthy of consideration or recognition.

That’s in the ballpark, but doesn’t seem to have quite the right shade of meaning; ‘recognizing or giving consideration’ isn’t the same as memorializing.

(I’ve ignored all the other definitions from both sources, as well as Websters, because they either state or imply the involvement of an actual memory, not a simple theoretical connection.)

So these definitions prove that the word has been used in the way the reporter used it (or very close) in the past. Still, the lack of logic in the construction, that strangers would be doing the remembering, seems to undermine the impact of the report. It’s a use that I would recommend against – stick to an unambiguous word with no awkwardness, such as memorialize or commemorate.

I’d be curious to know if this usage is gaining ground, or if it’s common in some parts of the country but still unheard of in others. As I noted, I understood the intent immediately, it was the actual wording that struck me as “off.” I’ve done a small amount of research on the web trying to find other instances of it…and have come up with absolutely no other case of remember used in quite this way.

If you’ve come across this usage before, post a comment below and (if possible) include the reference. Thanks!

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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