Anniversaries with a long tail
The Monitor's language columnist looks at the quintessential quindecennial and other celebrations.
Anu Garg celebrated the 15th anniversary of his popular â€śA Word a Dayâ€ť website a few weeks ago by featuring five 15-letter words. He also introduced another nifty new (to me, at least) word that, while not quite 15 letters long, does have a relationship to that number: quindecennial. Itâ€™s a 50-cent word to refer to a 15th anniversary or to something that occurs every 15 years.
If the federal government moved to conduct its regular head count of the population less often, we might shift from a decennial census to a quindecennial one, for instance.
The Wordsmith celebration started the day after a certain roundish anniversary of the birth of one of my grandfathers. Sesquicentennial I knew â€“ but that would overshoot by a quarter-century. Hmm, is there a fancy way of saying 125th anniversary? There is, and it wasnâ€™t hard to find: quasquicentennial.
Actually, Wikipedia has a whole list of these oddball â€śLatin-derived numerical namesâ€ť on a page headed â€śAnniversary.â€ť They include the relatively familiar centennial, bicentennial (American history is just long enough that weâ€™re seeing more of these nowadays, such as Abraham Lincolnâ€™s this year), tricentennial (fairly common along the East Coast), and even quadricentennial (Champlain and Hudson this year; Jamestown a couple of years ago). The sesqui element means â€śone and a half times,â€ť hence sesquicentennial, 150 years.
For other odd half-centuries, thereâ€™s semiquincentennial â€“ half of 500, or 250 years â€“ or semiseptcentennial, for 350. For its 250th birthday in 1996, Princeton University used the cantankerous-looking bicenquinquagenary.
Admittedly, nobody is going to use any of these fancy terms all the time, but then itâ€™s not every day that you need a word to refer to a 350th birthday.
Anniversary comes from the Latin anniversarius, â€śreturning annually.â€ť You can use your magic decoder (deconstructor?) ring to break it down into annus, â€śyear,â€ť (your high school yearbook was perhaps also called an annual) and versare, which means essentially, â€śto keep turning.â€ť
Not everyone gets that â€śyearâ€ť is built into the concept, evidently, because sometimes one hears or sees â€śthe 10-year anniversaryâ€ť instead of simply â€śthe 10th anniversary.â€ť A quick check of several dictionaries suggests that most are sticking with the narrow definition. Merriam-Webster Online, however, makes me a bit nervous by extending its definition to cover â€śbroadlyâ€ť not only â€śThe annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event,â€ť but also â€śa date that follows such an event by a specified period of time measured in other units than years.â€ť It gives an example: â€śThe 6-month anniversary of the accident.â€ť
Wince! This is how dictionaries go wobbly.
Iâ€™ve been struck by the many different places I run into â€śVersaâ€ť as a brand name. Nissan makes a car known as the â€śVersa.â€ť Itâ€™s also the name of a phone from LG, the Korean consumer electronics manufacturer. Several years ago I did all my writing on a computer whose brand Iâ€™m no longer certain of but whose model name was â€śVersa.â€ť Versa Products of Paramus, N.J., makes directional control valves, used in, among other places, the oil and gas industry. Versa Technology, which describes itself as â€śthe worldwide leader in last mile solutionsâ€ť sells various networking gizmos â€“ modems, repeaters, switches, and the like for linking all the com-
puters in a business together, for example.
I could go on.
But itâ€™s interesting that this almost-a-word-with-a-Latin-root shows up in so many places, I assume on the strength of its sound symbolism â€“ vivid, vivacious â€śvâ€ť has been called one of the most energetic sounds in the language â€“ and the way it suggests â€śversatility.â€ť