Friday, December 21, 2007

Words for Christmas

I really dislike the word biweekly. Now, normally I’m quite tolerant of words, as long as they spell themselves correctly, place themselves in sentences in a reasonably grammatical fashion, and hang out with the right sort of punctuation. And of course they must mean what they say, which is where we run into problems with the word in question here. You see, although when we’re speaking of years, there is a clear differentiation between biennial and biannual, biweekly can mean either every two weeks or twice weekly, so you tell me: what earthly use is a word like that?

There are certainly plenty of words in English called homographs, that are spelled the same but mean different things. But in most cases it is clearly obvious from context which meaning you are to take. I suppose if you just yelled, “Duck!” one might not be sure whether to hit the dirt or look around for an interesting specimen of waterfowl. And “Throw me a ball” could be ambiguous. Do I want a spherical object or a big dance party in my honour?

I just can’t imagine under what circumstances I would choose to use the word biweekly. If I tell you my cleaning lady comes biweekly, or I have to gas up my car biweekly, what do you glean from that? You have no idea how often these things happen. (Bimonthly, by the way, has the same problem.)

This could be avoided if we embraced the term semiweekly for twice a week (which is indeed what it unambiguously means) and reserved biweekly for every two weeks. But how do we go about making this happen? Any dictionary you consult today allows for either definition for biweekly. This is useless, people! Stop the madness and make yourself clear!

In an earlier blog, I’ve briefly touched on other words I dislike, for other reasons. But I must finish off here by telling you one of my favourite words. It’s abecedarian, meaning to do with the alphabet or, by extension, things of a rudimentary nature. When I first heard it, I thought it must be a relatively recent term and admired the cleverness of its coiner, but in fact it has been around since at least the Middle Ages. Such crystal clear derivation! Such a dandy word! It is my Christmas gift to you -- along with semiweekly.

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