Monday, July 4, 2011

Perennial Ennials

Today marks the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which, for both the mathematically and historically challenged, occurred in 1776.  This anniversary apparently does not have a high-fangled appellation like sesquicentennial or bicentennial.  Such Latinate sesquipedaliae are presumably thought to have a more celebratory sound than the prosaic “150th or 200th anniversary.”

Some folks have devised Latinate terms for most of the celebrations at 25-year intervals—other numbers need not apply for such special status.  Going from the notion that one hundred years is a “centennial” (from the Latin centum or “hundred” and annus or “year”), fifty years is a “semicentennial” (or, in another version, “quinquagenary”) and two hundred years is a “bicentennial.” 

That all seems straightforward enough, but the going gets tricky when you try to pin down some of the other anniversaries.  Sesquicentennial, for 150 years, is derived from the Latin sesqui, meaning “one and a half feet” (the same root as the word sesquipedalian).  If it’s 75 years, you’re supposed to call it a dodranscentennial, from the Latin de quadrans, which means “a whole unit of something less one-quarter.” By the same formula a 175-year celebration is a dodransbicentennial.

Quasquicentennial is a term for “125th anniversary” supposedly coined by Robert Chapman, an editor for Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, in 1962.  It’s derived from the Latin quadrans (“quarter”) joined to centennial by the Latin conjunction que. It is not recorded precisely what happened in 1837 to provoke Mr. Chapman’s celebration.

Five hundred years is a quincentennial, and 250 is half of that, or a semiquincentennial. Disdaining the unfinished implications of semi, several universities (including Princeton) have called their 250th anniversaries bicenquinquagenaries—a coined word that some Latin scholars insist really means 10,000 years—a milestone that even Oxford and Cambridge haven’t yet reached!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou finds that most of his milestones are really millstones, but, like Sisyphus, he keeps rolling them up the hill.

            Sometimes I wonder just how many’ll
            Come to celebrate my centennial--
            ‘Twill be in 2037.
            My guests won’t care about the menu,
            No, their concern is for the venue:
            Will it be in hell or heaven?

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