Monday, August 27, 2012


It is common enough in the English language for words to have multiple definitions, some of which are very different in their meanings. For example, the word "skate" refers not only to an aerobic activity performed on wheeled or bladed shoes (as well as the wheeled or blades shoes you perform the activity with), but also a sea creature that resembles a ray. During a conversation with someone, however, they're highly unlikely to be unsure which one you're referring to. "I have to go get my skates sharpened before playing hockey tonight" isn't likely to make anyone think you're going to take your whetstone out to the ocean in search of marine animals that have become dull.

This, unfortunately, is not the case with biannual, as its two meanings are - in some ways - complete opposites. The context in which you use the word is likely to be unhelpful to another person, because the two definitions are also very similar. Biannual can mean either "twice a year" or "every two years." How is that productive? I can tell you right now that I see my dentist biannually and I go to an eye doctor biannually. Can you tell, from my sentence, who I see twice a year and who I see every other year? Not at all!

I've always found it weird that biannual could have such confusingly similar, yet meaningfully disparate, definitions. Luckily, I have come up with a solution to help everyone out. The word "biennial" means "occurring every two years" and it doesn't mean anything else. If we could just convince the entire English speaking world to use biennial for that meaning, and stick to biannual for those things are twice a year, then we will be all set. You start telling your friends today, and I'll do the same! (We will have to figure out what to do with the similarly afflicted "biweekly" another time.)

It's Monday, so I hope everyone's week gets off to a good start. This is David Wartik. Word up!

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