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Anniversaries with a long tail

The Monitor's language columnist looks at the quintessential quindecennial and other celebrations.

By Ruth Walker / April 13, 2009



Anu Garg celebrated the 15th anniversary of his popular “A Word a Day” 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. It’s a 50-cent word to refer to a 15th anniversary or to something that occurs every 15 years.

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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 – but that would overshoot by a quarter-century. Hmm, is there a fancy way of saying 125th anniversary? There is, and it wasn’t hard to find: quasquicentennial.

Actually, Wikipedia has a whole list of these oddball “Latin-derived numerical names” on a page headed “Anniversary.” They include the relatively familiar centennial, bicentennial (American history is just long enough that we’re seeing more of these nowadays, such as Abraham Lincoln’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 “one and a half times,” hence sesquicentennial, 150 years.

For other odd half-centuries, there’s semiquincentennial – half of 500, or 250 years – 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 it’s not every day that you need a word to refer to a 350th birthday.

Anniversary comes from the Latin anniversarius, “returning annually.” You can use your magic decoder (deconstructor?) ring to break it down into annus, “year,” (your high school yearbook was perhaps also called an annual) and versare, which means essentially, “to keep turning.”

Not everyone gets that “year” is built into the concept, evidently, because sometimes one hears or sees “the 10-year anniversary” instead of simply “the 10th anniversary.” 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 “broadly” not only “The annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event,” but also “a date that follows such an event by a specified period of time measured in other units than years.” It gives an example: “The 6-month anniversary of the accident.”

Wince! This is how dictionaries go wobbly.

I’ve been struck by the many different places I run into “Versa” as a brand name. Nissan makes a car known as the “Versa.” It’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 I’m no longer certain of but whose model name was “Versa.” 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 “the worldwide leader in last mile solutions” sells various networking gizmos – modems, repeaters, switches, and the like for linking all the com-
puters in a business together, for example.

I could go on.

But it’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 – vivid, vivacious “v” has been called one of the most energetic sounds in the language – and the way it suggests “versatility.”

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