The error in 'era'

The Monitor's language columnist considers how a particular term for measuring time has been hard at work lately.

Such is the sometimes bittersweet synchro­nicity of the way we engage public events: I went to bed noodling over how often I've been hearing the word "era" lately. And I woke up to hear that, with the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, an era had ended. And it's an era that has had quite an arc.

It is hard to believe, but true, O younger readers, that there not only was a time when Ted Kennedy was not in the US Senate, there was even a time when he was too young for the Senate. Long before he was the last liberal lion of the Senate, he was a sort of national little brother.

An era has ended. And I say that as one who wants to see that particular locution used sparingly, to preserve its effectiveness, the way the special car­ving knife used for holiday turkeys is kept safely in a drawer between occasions and not appropriated for use in the kids' crafts projects.

The recent discussion of US government policy on torture has included the use of "era" to distinguish one White House from another. Thus we have "Bush-era" officials and regulations – as if people worked for a set of pages in a desk calendar rather than for a president with particular policies.

And given that dictionaries often define era first as a measurement of geologic time, it feels strange to see "era" applied to a period that extends up until just a few months ago. (Hey, I've got things in my fridge that go back to that earlier "era.")

Of course, the word people are trying to avoid is "administration." In the 24-hour news cycle, who's got time for five syllables when two can be made to serve instead?

I am not readily confirming what I think I know about "administration"; namely, that it is a term that George Washington used to refer to his time in ­office. But I am finding that our first president wore a plain brown cloth suit for his inauguration. If there's a plain brown word in English, it's "administration." (Make that plain brown with a grayish cast.)

Another reason people talk more about "eras" nowadays has to do with the spread of US military might around the world.

This may sound like a stretch, but bear with me for a moment.

A friend likes to joke that her late husband fought the Korean War in Germany. That is, he served in Germany, where the United States still had troops as a consequence of World War II, even as it became involved in Korea. He was thus, strictly speaking, a Korean War-era veteran.

I used to know a man who had served in the US Navy "during the Vietnam conflict," as he fastidiously put it. He was actually stationed in northern Virginia. His most dangerous mission was sallying forth in his pajamas to retrieve the Sunday Washington Post from the lobby of his apartment building.

If there's a good example of the value of preserving a distinction between "during" and "in," this is it. It's harder to get wounded within a time frame than on a battlefield.

Era, the Online Etymological Dictionary explains, comes from a Latin word referring to counters used for calculation, from an ancient word for brass. Era is related to ore; both words have connections with metalworking.

Let's count out the coins of history carefully. We don't have a new era every day.

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