Mind your language

How long is it since anniversaries stopped being measured in years?

When the BBC feels the need to talk about a ‘25th anniversary’, you know a change has occurred

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

‘You must promise to be with us for our silver wedding D.V. which will be in four years,’ wrote Queen Victoria in February 1861 to her daughter Vicky in Prussia, where her husband had just become Crown Prince. But D was not V, and dear Albert was dead before the year was out. I think the German connection is relevant here to the use of silver wedding, for mother and daughter would both have been familiar with the notion of a silberhochzeit.

Silver wedding had not long been in English usage, although, in the late 18th century, some people aware of German customs used the phrase silver feast. I was thinking of silver weddings because of something odd that I heard on the wireless. Paddy O’Connell referred to a ‘25-year anniversary’. Only hours before I’d heard someone else talk of a two-year anniversary. It seems to me extraordinary not to be content with the anni- element in anniversary to express the idea ‘year’.

I suspect that the new reduplication has developed from using anniversary of periods less than a year, with a couple perhaps saying: ‘It’s our three-month anniversary.’ That may be nonsense but we understand what they mean, and so the next step has been to specify that it is a matter of years that is being commemorated.

The original event marked at an anniversary was not a wedding but a death. That agreeable antiquary Thomas Blount, a friend of Anthony Wood, explained in his Nomolexicon (1670) that it formerly signified ‘the days whereon, at every year’s end, Men were wont to pray for the Souls of their deceased Friends, according to the continued custom of Roman Catholicks’. These anniversary days were otherwise known as year’s minds, or mind-days.

Following the Reformation, a curious afterlife of the term month’s mind, the month’s memorial of a death, with the meaning ‘inclination, fancy’, is exemplified in Pepys’s diaries. He was lodging in Scheveningen and ‘in another bed there was a pretty Dutch woman in bed alone, but though I had a month’s-mind I had not the boldness to go to her’. Lucky for her, or she might ever after have kept a sad anniversary.

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