Parson to Person: “Another Sestercentennial? Or Is It Semiquincentennial?” April 23, 2021

As you can see in the description of the upcoming Sunday service (“Getting the Hell Out of Religion: Part II”), we will be celebrating the 250th birthday of Hosea Ballou (often called the “father” of Universalism in America) this coming Sunday.

So, what do you call a 250th anniversary? We know a 25th is called a silver anniversary, and a 50th is called golden. A 100th is called a centennial (from the Latin “centum,” meaning 100–from which we get words like century, centurion, percent, and, well, cent–and “annum,” meaning year–from which we get words like annual and annuity.) A 200th is called a bicentennial (from the Latin “centum” and “annum,” of course, but with “bi” added on, meaning two–so two centuries).

But what’s the term for a 250th?  Well, there really is a word for this–in fact, there are two words you can use (if you can remember them!)  The first is sestercentennial (from the Latin “sesterce,” which was a Roman coin worth one quarter of a denarius, or about 2 1/2 donkeys–plus “centum” and “annum” again, giving us 2 1/2 centuries). But if that’s too clunky to remember, you can use the more melodious semiquincentennial (“semi” meaning half [as in semi-truck] and “quin” meaning five [as in quintuplets]–so half of five centuries).

Actually, I think both words are “clunky”–and not all that melodious–but I thought that those of you who like word origins as much as I do might want to store this item in your list of little-known-and-less-cared-about facts. Another item you might want to store is the meaning of the words “biweekly” and “bimonthly.”  “Biweekly” means either  twice a week OR every other week; and “bimonthly” means either twice a month OR every other month. The problem, of course, is the word “bi,” which means two–but is it multiplied-by-two or divided-by-two? Both meanings are common, and both can be found in most dictionaries (though the preferred version is usually the “multiplied-by-two” version). But think about it: “bimonthly” can sometimes mean “biweekly.”  Who knew?

OK, enough word tangles. (I’m not sure how many of you even got this far in reading this column!) But if there’s a lesson to be drawn from all this, I suppose it’s that words and meanings often change over time. Like the terms “wonderful” and “awful,” which originally meant the same thing. (“Full of wonder” is, after all, a synonym for “full of awe.”)  They both meant “mysterious” at first–which could be in a positive way or a negative way–but eventually the first one came to be used positively only, and the second negatively. Interestingly though, the positive form of  “awe” still survives in our word “awesome”; while “wondersome” never got off the ground!

I wonder what “peace” and “unrest” may come to mean in future? Well, for now it’s what I wish you.

peace and unrest,


P.S. Craig and I will be on vacation from May 19-25, visiting with friends on an island off Florida (where I will be Zooming my sermon to you that Sunday). We plan to have a wondersome time.