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shameless pleading






Seems like Only-Yesterday-Day.

Dear Word Detective: Most people know that the word “anniversary” deals with years, due to its root word, “annum.” But I constantly hear people talk about a six-week “anniversary” or a seven-month “anniversary.” These phrases are incorrect, but I cannot come up with a word that works in that instance. Certainly using fractions of a year (“our 3/10s anniversary”) is ridiculous, so what is the correct word, or words? — Gary R.

Good question. I was going to wait until the first anniversary of its arrival in my inbox before answering it, but we’ll just call this the ten-month anniversary, OK? Seems more appropriate. I have, by the way, email archives dating back to 1994 on my computer, which comes in handy when I need a good question and don’t have a recent one handy. I used to feel guilty about answering queries ten years late, but I figure it’s like the person just found that wallet they lost back in 2001, assuming they’ve kept the same email address for ten years. Hey, I still get a lot of mail from AOL accounts.

Onward. You’re correct about the roots of “anniversary” and the apparent logical problem posed by using it for any denomination of time but whole years. You are far from alone in finding such usage odd and awkward, as I discovered when I Googled variations on “Is there a word for a six-month anniversary.” There seems to be a large and vocal community of outrage seething about the usage of “anniversary” to mean less than one year. (Incidentally, I think we should popularize the term “Community of Outrage,” which we can then refer to by the acronym “COO,” which will drive the seethers nuts.)

“Anniversary” first appeared in English in the 13th century, and was based on the Latin word “anniversarius,” meaning “returning yearly” (from “annus,” year, plus “versus,” a turning). The first uses of “anniversary” were in the church, and “anniversary days” were usually dates with particular religious significance, e.g., the days of martyrdom of saints, etc. The use of “anniversary” for the yearly marking of any past occasion dates to a bit later, and such dates were previously known as “year-days” or “mind-days,” times when a notable occasion or person is “brought to mind.”

The use of “anniversary” to mean a date marking less than one year’s passage of time started to attract the attention of lexicographers in the late 1960s, but such use was, at that time, largely oral and rarely found in print. With the advent of the internet, of course, more previously purely oral usages began to appear in print. Bingo, here we are speaking of “two-week anniversaries” and yadda yadda yadda. (Yes, that’s an oral usage meta-joke.)

There have been, among those disturbed by the “hijacking” of “anniversary” to celebrate the fact that Danny and Debbie have been dating for a month, new words suggested to fill the gap. Since the need is felt most keenly when the interval observed is a multiple of months, we have “monthiversary,” “mensiversary” for Latin lovers (“mensis” being Latin for “month”), and “lunaversary” (“luna,” Latin for “moon,” the waxing and waning of which is the basis for our months). To the folks who came up with those inventions, I can only say, “Nice try, good luck with that.” But seriously, “lunaversary”? It sounds like where you’d go to study the invention of weird new words.

The bottom line on “anniversary” is something I seem to say way more often than once a year: language changes, and words change their meanings according to how real people use them “in the wild.” Does anyone truly not understand what “six-month anniversary” means? Of course not. So we don’t need a new word. The word we have has simply broadened its meaning from “The day in any year which agrees in date with a particular day in a former year” (Oxford English Dictionary) to “A day which marks the passage of a specific period of time from the date of a notable occurrence.” Just as “decimate” no longer means “to kill one out of every ten people” and “nice” no longer means “stupid” or “wanton,” the word “anniversary” has simply made itself a bit more useful.

3 comments to Anniversary

  • Marie

    Dear Word Detective,

    I would like to add a small data point to your entry on “galoot.” The word occurs repeatedly in the wonderful British series of children’s books, Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, where a slightly bossy girl calls her younger sister “you tame galoot!” The books are set in the 1930s and have a pronounced nautical influence — the girls’ uncle is a retired Naval or merchant Marine officer, her friends are children of a serving Royal Navy captain, etc. This dovetails nicely with your reference to soldiers on board ship, although I must confess that in my ignorance, seeing the word combined with “tame,” I first assumed it to be an animal or bird…

  • Wilson

    Even if understandable it still seems like an unsatisfactory construction, mainly because there is rarely a good reason for using it–a time period of months/hours/minutes is not momentous. Marking your “birthday” every month would be almost as ridiculous, but at least a more elegant use of language.

  • Seethers

    COO could also refer to a deprotonated carboxylic acid, which is a very important functional group in your constitution. Don’t let your proteins fail you.

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