What’s the frequency, English?

Americans have no idea what a fortnight is.


I used to go out with a poet, and she helped put out this poetry chapbook. It came out triannually, and that was the first time I knew that triannual meant thrice a year, rather than once every three years, which is triennial. Likewise biannually and biennially – twice a year and every two years, respectively. EXCEPT that, according to this dictionary, the second definition of biannual IS biennial. This both hurts my head and breaks my heart.

I KNEW this was a problem with biweekly, which means both twice a week AND every two weeks. This was a tad confusing when wanting to order comic books back in the day. We assumed, though, that a comic was going to come out twice a month, rather than eight or nine times a month. To avoid this confusion, I started using the term fortnightly for every two weeks. The problem with THAT is Americans have no idea what a fortnight is.

In the triannual definition, the usage note reads: “To avoid confusion between ‘triennial’…and ‘triannual’…, it is often better to substitute a less ambiguous phrase such as ‘three times a year’ or ‘every four months’. I suppose so, but often the phrase is far less elegant than a single, perfect word. Obviously, triannual has been rendered an imperfect word.

For twice a year, I use semiannually, but I don’t have a similar option for thrice annually.

Two of my favorite words denoting the passage of time:
Sesquicentennial – 150 years. Find more anniversary words here.
Lustrum – five years, which was tied to the census of ancient Rome.
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? – R.E.M.

8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need, says College Humor.

The official list of English words misused in EU documents.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

8 thoughts on “What’s the frequency, English?”

  1. I don’t think I was really aware of “fortnight” or “fornightly” until I moved to New Zealand where it’s commonly used. I used to use clunky phrases to get around the “biweekly” problem, such as, I used to say “twice a week” or “every two weeks”. Now, of course, using “fortnightly” helps me avoid one of those confusions. Maybe American bloggers should just adopt the word and start a trend—you first!

  2. I think I first became aware of “fortnight” through Shakespeare in high school. The first real friend I made on the internet was in Australia, so I became familiar with it very quickly. Before that, I’d never heard anyone use the word in conversation. Now I have so many internet friends around the world that I see it all the time.

    The one that was harder for me was “bi-monthly.” It can mean either twice a month or every other month. When I was around 10, a LOT of the comics I read suddenly went on a bi-monthly schedule, and I remember finding that very confusing. (My mother, on the other hand, simply found it annoying that I was suddenly asking her to buy me the new issue of G.I. Joe every two weeks instead of every four.)

  3. I was always confused about these terms – still am! Thanks for posting this and providing some background into and thanks for visiting my post!

  4. I remember the first time I heard the work “sesquicentennial” was when Binghamton, home of Swamproot snake oil, turned 150.

    Now, you taught me something here. I honestly didn’t know that biweekly meant both things. I always call something that comes out once every two weeks “semi-monthly,” without realizing another, more confusing option was available. Being a bit of an imp, I could have sent heads spinning with “biweekly.”

    By this reasoning, wouldn’t bisexual people prefer either both genders OR only one, thus rendering them straight? Or half a man and half a woman? Is that something bioengineering is gonna tackle (sounds like something George W. Bush would say… “Next thing, they’ll be tryin’ to ‘commodate the bi-SEKSH-uals with a human hybrid. Never trust a scientist. They all lie about global warming now that I’m not in charge to make them tell the truth…”

    I think I’m a bit manic. What say you?! Amy

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