Mind your language

Anniversary

20 May 2017

9:00 AM

20 May 2017

9:00 AM

‘It’s like Pin number,’ said my husband, drifting into lucidity.

So it is, in a way. The construction under discussion was one-year anniversary. Just as Pin embraces personal identification number (making the addition of number pleonastic), so the concept of a year is plain in anniversary, rendering the cobbling on of year redundant.

I am sorry to say there is bad news for all of us who think one-year anniversary and its family repugnant. The construction is so rampant and widespread that we are stuck with it. It’s worse than ground elder. No one can dig up all the language and remove the virulent white roots that spread the usage. We’re lumbered with this new hybrid.


It is everywhere in the newspapers. In one that I found on the kitchen floor, which had been wrapping up the kind gift of some rhubarb, there was a report of some unfamiliar celebrity who ‘shared a bizarre picture of a couple holding guns just a week after celebrating her one-year anniversary with her jailbird boyfriend’. Elsewhere, Beyoncé was marking ‘the one-year anniversary of the release of Lemonade’. Even a paper like the Telegraph does not blush to refer to the ‘375-year anniversary’ of an historical event.

There are hundreds of such examples in print every week, and incalculable thousands in speech. The usage is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has not revised its entry for anniversary since 1884, but when it gets round to doing so, it can hardly ignore this catachrestic construction.

There is also a way of using anniversary that is just as erroneous but perhaps more understandable. This is to apply it to the passage of less than a year from an event. ‘My girlfriend and I just had our six-month anniversary,’ as the tabloid classes put it. Or, on the back page of the papers: ‘Doomed Sunderland marked the two-month anniversary of their last goal.’

In this case, anniversary fills a semantic gap. One might metaphorically speak of a six-month birthday. In French, for example, ‘birthday’ is anniversaire. So why not speak in English of a six-month anniversary? There may be plenty of reasons, but there’s no stopping it now.

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