19 July 2010

Term for the day: "Semantic bleaching"

In a column at the New York Times this week Ben Zimmer ruminates about the use and misuse of the word "anniversary":
What has happened to the word anniversary? Even though the idea of yearly recurrence is built into the word etymologically, that idea has been clouded over centuries of use...

As the annual aspect has moved to the background of anniversary, the shift has opened the door for use of the term to mark the passing of shorter units of time. The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, in its entry for the word, states that anniversary can refer more broadly to a date following a notable event "by a specified period of time measured in units other than years," giving the example, "the 6-month anniversary of the accident."

Linguists call this process "semantic bleaching": the lessening of a word's force through generalization. The bleaching of anniversary has been going on for quite a while, even if dictionaries are only now catching up. For more than a century, English speakers have been modifying anniversary with numbers of days, weeks or months...

Anniversary has been pressed into service for nonannual commemorations in part because English has no other commonly used terms that can fill the gap. At various times since the 19th century, the monthly equivalent of anniversary has been dubbed a mensiversary...
More at the link.


  1. If semantic bleaching is dilution of a word's meaning, then perhaps the swastika might be said to be a victim of symbol staining.

  2. "mensiversary"? I'm sorry I have to go giggle now.

  3. I tried, six months after the event, to find a word more fitting than anniversary; my best guess was 'mesiversary,' which was my attempt at 'mensiversary.'
    I am similarly annoyed at the contradictory use of 'anniversary' in instances such as "the three month anniversary of her first steps," although to the best of my knowledge there isn't a more appropriate (or less oxymoronic) word in English.

  4. My boyfriend and I used "lunaversary" for our monthly progress. We've made the 26th of every month our definite date night, the 12th lunaversary becoming the anniversary and so on.

    1. I love that word, and may well steal it, but luna comes form moon, which would give you 29.5 day cycles. This would, of course, mean more date nights for you and your boyfriend, but they wouldn't land on a fixed calendar day. You'd also have to alternate between breakfast and dinner dates to really make a a lunaversary. :-)
      I can be way too pedantic.

    2. I had actually had a similar discussion with him, my now husband, hehe. But we tried a variety of words, and nothing else seemed to stick. So we agreed to fudge it. :)


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