I read in New York Magazine this weekend that Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) has a “regular biweekly ‘boys’ night out’” and that made me wonder if he went out with his friends every other Friday or perhaps every Tuesday and Saturday. ”Biweekly” is a word that makes me uncomfortable since I hear it quite seldom, and it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing every time. I’ve always thought that was because my otherwise near-perfect memory had a blind spot at that exact dictionary entry, so to speak. Nevermind, I thought, if he invites me to join them I suppose he will be more specific, and if he doesn’t (quite likely) it doesn’t really matter, does it?
And then I read today’s Bloom County strip (re-runs from the ’80s) where Opus arrives at the barber’s for his “biannual haircut” and I decided to take action. I can deal with not knowing Malcolm Gladwell’s party schedule, but I really want to know if my favourite penguin gets a trim twice a year or every two years. (I have tried both intervals, and each has its charm.)
I started with “biweekly” and here’s what the dictionary says:
adjective & adverb
appearing or taking place every two weeks or twice a week : [as adj. ] a biweekly bulletin | [as adv. ] she followed her doctor’s instructions to undergo health checks biweekly.
Wow. I never finished my course in Language Philosophy in 1992, but I remember the Morning Star Paradox quite well. It goes something like this:
- Mary belives that the Morning Star is Lucifer, and she believes that the Evening Star is the goddess Venus. Her friend Tycho is aware of her beliefs, but…
- Tycho knows that the Morning Star and the Evening Star refer to the same physical object, so…
- Tycho thinks that Mary believes that Lucifer and Venus are one and the same.
I remember that this was a useful tool for understanding the difference between a reference and a referent or somesuch, but most of all I thought it was beautiful. Mary has romantic beliefs about the existance of deities and their position in the sky, and while scientists normally shrug at romantic beliefs, they (we) all have to stick our noses into this one. Dear Mary, you can believe that the Morning Star is Lucifer, and you can believe that the Evening Star is Venus, but you can’t believe both. If you can’t see the beauty in this I probably can’t help you.
Anyway, here are today’s more or less contradictory words:
biweekly: (adj,adv) every two weeks or twice a week; (noun) a periodical that appears every two weeks or twice a week
bimonthly: (adj,adv) occurring or produced twice a month or every two months; (noun) a periodical produced twice a month or every two months. (With the added note that “[i]n the publishing world, the meaning of bimonthly is more fixed and is invariably used to mean ‘every two months.’”)
biennal: (adj) taking place every other year, (noun) 1 a plant that takes two years to grow from seed to fruition and die. 2 an event celebrated or taking place every two years.
biannual: (adj) occurring twice a year
There are a few other things that come to mind when I see these words together. One is that ‘biannual’ is never a noun. Another is that the lexicographers chose to say “every two weeks or twice a week” but “twice a month or every two months”. Order is not always significant in a dictionary, but it’s hard to fathom that not at least one of the two entries has a bias for ‘twice’ or ‘every two’. But it’s of course impossible to know which one it is.
And thirdly, the note for ‘bimonthly’ as a noun makes me wonder if the notes are written by a different group of people from the ones who write the actual definitions, or if ‘publishing world’ is the key word here. You and I might call a periodical that appears every two weeks bimonthly since it appears twice a month, but in the publishing world, it will be a biweekly instead.