Originally posted in August 2011.
It seems an opportune moment, as we approach a significant date that history will never forget, to look at the meaning and derivation of the word “anniversary” — a word that will be on everyone’s lips over the coming weeks and days. It’s a word that many feel the need to qualify – wrongly – with the word “year”, even though the notion of year is inherent in the definition of the word itself. Do a Google news search on the phrase “10-year anniversary”, and hundreds if not thousands of results come up, none of them really correct.
According to the OED, an anniversary is “the date on which an event took place in a previous year”. Or, for the OED’s second meaning, “a celebration of this”. (This second definition is questionable, since there’s many an anniversary that no-one wishes to celebrate.) Almost every reputable dictionary includes the word ‘year’ in its definition of the word, which derives from the Latin “annus” (year) + “versus” (turned). The quintessential anniversary that we all celebrate (at least until we reach a certain age …) is our own birthday, an annual event; the French word “anniversaire” means both birthday and anniversary.
More recently, and colloquially, the meaning of “anniversary” has been stretched to include commemorations of dates that occurred less than a year ago, necessitating a qualifier to clarify whether it’s months or weeks (or even days) we’re counting since the event or date in question came to pass. “We’re celebrating the six-month anniversary of our meeting.” “It’s the five-day anniversary of our pizza-party.” And so the crux – “anni-” – of this once useful and universally understood word has been forgotten and lost in its over-usage, and as a result, the qualifying but tautologous “-year” is now often added needlessly and indiscriminately, the way we add salt to our food. “We’re commemorating the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 .” We’re not: we’re remembering the tenth anniversary of a heinous day in history.
It’s a shame that this elegant and expressive marker of life’s landmarks both tragic and celebratory should have been diluted through overuse. The word that once described the commemoration, marking or remembrance of dates laden with the significant passing of years is now often a mere “versary” of days or weeks. Let’s hope that “anniversary” eventually has its true meaning restored, and that future generations can appreciate the gravitas that the word can and should earn only through time.