April 29th, 2009
Triannual, biannual, biennial / on accident
by Barbara Wallraff
Adrian Rush, of Alexandria, Va., writes: “Someone who works with my wife asked me about the proper meaning of ‘triannual,’ and that got me thinking about the difference between ‘biannual’ and ‘biennial.’ I know the former means ‘twice a year’ and the latter means ‘every other year,’ but why? Is it just tradition? Is there a meaning inherent in ‘annual’ versus ‘ennial’ that gives each word its particular meaning?”
Dear Adrian: English isn’t as orderly as that. These words came to us from Latin, though, and Latin is orderly. So, sets of words properly derived from it tend to match -- for instance, “millennial,” “centennial,” “quadrennial,” “triennial,” “biennial.” English-speakers with a firm grasp of Latin have been using “biennial” to mean “every two years” since the 1600s. People with a less firm grasp recombined the Latin roots in the late 1800s to get “biannual.” But inventing this word so that it could mean “twice a year” was doubly a mistake, because “bi-” means “two,” not “half.”
Cheryl L. Spencer, of Old Town, Maine, writes: “Growing up, I learned that the expression to describe an action that was done unintentionally was ‘by accident.’ Recently, I have heard ‘on accident’ being used for this, apparently following the pattern of ‘on purpose.’ I thought at first that it might be a regional usage or a misuse. Then I heard it used on a television network situation comedy. Have I missed this expression all these years, or is it a neologism?”
Dear Cheryl: The people who’ve been saying “on accident” all along are young children still learning the language and nonnative speakers. What’s new is that native speakers over the age of, say, 10 also are doing so. This reminds me of what happened to “fun” 15 or 20 years ago: Grown-ups thought of the word as a noun and said things like, “That was so much fun,” but younger people started thinking of it as an adjective and said things like, “That was so fun!” (The noun use, by the way, is still better form.)
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