Notes From Babel

Words to Retire: Biannual & Semiannual

with one comment

That either of these words infiltrated the English lexicon invites skepticism over the diligence of those looking after our stockpiles. First, the obvious: the two words on their face have different meanings yet officially have the same meaning. Second, and more importantly, each word has a sort of Schrödinger’s cat effect in the respect that they at once have different meanings depending on how you think about them.  Does “bi” modify the root “annum” to mean every two years, or “annual” to mean twice each year?  Similarly, does “semi” modify “annum” to mean every half year—i.e., twice a year—or “annual” to mean the event is to occur half as frequently as once a year—i.e., every two years?

At the very least, since “bi” means “two” and “semi” means “half,” the two words must mean different things, right?  Right?

Alas, they don’t.  The official definition of both of those words is “twice a year.”  This means the prefix of “biannual” modifies “annum,” while the prefix of “semiannual” modifies “annual.”   Assuming language is meant to convey clear meaning, these words can serve no possible use.

(By the way, “biennial,” which officially means “every two years,” strikes me as little better.)

[I neglected to check, which sums up the futility of these words handily:

/baɪˈwikli/ Show Spelled [bahy-week-lee] Show IPA adjective, noun, plural -lies, adverb
1. occurring every two weeks.
2. occurring twice a week; semiweekly.

3. a periodical issued every other week.

4. every two weeks.
5. twice a week.

Use biweekly in a Sentence
See images of biweekly
Search biweekly on the Web
1880–85; bi-1  + weekly

—Can be confused:  1. bimonthly, biweekly, semimonthly (see usage note at bi-1 ); 2. biweekly, semiweekly (see usage note at bi-1 ).

Can be confused”?  I think that statement may be made in the declarative.]

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Written by Tim Kowal

July 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Posted in Language

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. Yeah, the Bi and Semi are a strange lot. I always feel like Nigel Tufnel when someone says something occurs bi-weekly.


    July 11, 2010 at 7:47 am

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