“Fortnight”

Period of two weeks. This useful word has traditionally been reserved, in the U.S., for tennis commentators referring to the Wimbledon tournament. But that is clearly no longer the case. Consider:

For the rest of us dilettantes, there is the Hallmark aisle and, more precisely, the special section dedicated for a fortnight annually to cards exclusively “For Mom.” (ABCNews.com, May 12, 2012)

Not even a fortnight has passed and now a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the team thicker than at any time since a Ping-Pong ball bounced the Bulls’ way four years ago, bringing forth a Chicago son’s bright rays. (Chicago Daily Herald, May 10, 2012)

‘I have to pinch myself every day,” [hockey player Chris] Kreider said of his storybook fortnight, which began with winning the N.C.A.A. championship with Boston College and has continued with five rapidly improving appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (New York Times, April 27, 2011)

Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is planning a “Fortnight for Freedom” this summer (actually mostly coinciding with Wimbledon), the freedom in question apparently being that of employers to prevent their workers from getting free birth control.

The word this brings to mind is stone, as a unit of weight. I somehow don’t think that one is going to happen over here.

42 responses to ““Fortnight”

  1. Many, many Fortnightly Clubs and other uses of “Fortnightly” in the United States starting in the Victorian Era and continuing today.

  2. Tennis? I beg to differ. I’ve been using the term in a general context since I was a schoolboy half a century ago. Of course, I don’t recall where I first heard or saw it, but it was probably in some class reading assignment.

  3. I think that the freedom to which the bishops refer is that which keeps the government from dictating how one’s faith must be practiced. If a person chooses to work for ANY organization with specific principles, they should not be surprised when it chooses to act in accordance with those principles. For instance, a religious homophobe who takes a job with GLAAD as a paralegal might find that the organization might require him to advocate on behalf of rights for the LGBT community, or might deny a request to take off for a religious holiday. We seem to forget that if a government oversteps its limits to promote and agenda with which we agree, it sets a precedent which means that a different government will also be able to overstep its limits to promote an agenda we oppose. Be wary of championing the power of the state.

    • Little Black Sambo

      “…a request to take off for a religious holiday…”
      Are you referring to a fortnight’s holiday? What are you referring to?

  4. Ooh, I didn’t know this one. As someone who has used “stone” as a unit of weight all their lives, I have to agree with your scepticism about it. I mean for a start, a stone is 14 pounds, but a pound is 16 ounces, a yard is 36 inches… who comes up with this shit? Seriously. I bet there’d be objections if I started to refer to a period of time called a “fnaff” and upon being questioned said “oh, a fnaff is a block of 17 minutes”. That’s how stupidly random those numbers are.

    • To be fair, they’re not random at all – each of them has a perfectly rational (at the time!) reason for its existence.

      Stones are but one unit in a collection:
      – ounce
      – pound (16 ounces)
      – stone (14 pounds)
      – quarter (2 stones, or 28 pounds)
      – hundredweight (4 quarters, or 8 stones, or 112 pounds)
      – ton (20 hundredweight, or 2240 pounds)

      • These are all units of measurement that derived from ancient times from before the metric system was invented, As a matter of interest I have just bought half a peck of apples in a local store (USA) and wood is sold by the chord. Measurements that ceased to be used in Britain a long time ago.

      • But spelled, I think, cord. As a unit of firewood it would have died out many many years ago in Britain, as we cut down most of our forests to feed the industrial revolution.

    • Aye, I get the impression it’s all about divisability, which does make a kind of sense, you’re right. I guess it’s an individual thing whether people find those or units of ten easier to deal with. Being mildly dyscalculic I find the more different digits in a number the more it starts to look like digit salad, so I’m probably more inclined to metric.

      I clearly upset someone though. I was only joking; I’m not going to go round your local supermarket scribbling out all the pint measurements on the milk. Argh, Europe is coming to get us! No.

    • Jan, no no no… these numbers and units are all sensible. iIn your example you use 17 which is, interestingly, indeed a very useless number in measuring… but a very useful number in mathematics as it is prime.
      On 16 ounces in a pound this is a great idea that evolved rationally: because in weighing things on a scale, literally, you can divide a pound into half, that half into a half, and the resulting halves into halves. its very practical. you can’t do that with the number 10. it is the same reason inches are divided into fractions, right down to 64ths on a workshop 12 inch steel ruler.
      36 inches in a yard is also interesting and useful and I look forward to you prompting me for the reason!

  5. If I use fortnight promiscuously in conversation, I’m afraid most people in New Jersey will ask for a translation. It works better in written American, if used judiciously. Two of your examples involve sports.

  6. Michael Young

    Origins?
    Is ‘fortnight’, I wonder, derived from ‘fourteen nights’?
    Or is that obvious to everyone except me?

    • Either not obvious, or I’m dense, or I never thought about its origin in the half century I’ve known the term.

  7. Little Black Sambo

    When did “sennight” disappear?

  8. Shakespeare used sennight, but apparently it didn’t last longer than a fortnight.

  9. One of my favorite one-liners from Demetri Martin:

    “Whenever something exciting happens to me, I always wait two weeks to tell anybody about it, because I love using the word ’fortnight’.”

    (from the album These Are Jokes, “The Personal Information Waltz”)

  10. bajc11, nobody is forcing the bishops, or Catholic employers, to use contraception. The principal is, laws governing employees must cover all employees, in all companies. You wouldn’t argue, I hope, that if someone’s religion said women weren’t equal to men, that justified them as an employer paying women less for doing the same job as a man. And don’t try to use the “slippery slope” fallacy – it’s only ever used by people who don’t have anything better to try but scare tactics.

    • Little Black Sambo

      Contraception. Are you referring to a fortnightly system of contraception? If not, why not?

      • Michael Young

        Perhaps it has something to do with cycles of ovulation and abstinence or – perhaps – not.

    • I am cutting off comments about birth control at this point. Everyone has had their innings, and it’s off-topic for this blog anyway.

  11. I’m watching a new episode of PBS’ Nature as I write, about koalas in Queensland, Australia. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/cracking-the-koala-code/introduction/7619/)
    One is captured and taken to a clinic for a mild case of chlamydia. Per the narrator, he is treated and released “within a fortnight.”

  12. I too picked up this term as a young girl, having read many books by British authors. In the fifth grade, my teacher thought that I had plagiarized on a homework assignment because “you couldn’t possibly know the meaning of the word ‘fortnight.'”

    I correctly defined it, adding that had we been in a classroom in the UK we would not be having the conversation.

    She was not amused.

  13. I just learned a new word. I only speak East Tennessee, a little English and no British. I’ll bet the British don’t know what “you all” means or how to properly use the phrase “bless her little heart”.

    • I’ve always thought that ‘you all’ meant ‘ye’. Is that right?

    • I believe that “you all” is the plural of “you” now that “you” has taken the place of “thou” and so is singular (as well as plural). As for “bless her little heart”, I don’t know how the people of East Tennessee use that. Is it, I wonder, relater to “bless her little cotton socks”?

  14. I much prefer to use the word “fortnight” as it’s absolutely clear what it means – unlike “biweekly” which can mean both twice a week and once every two weeks.

  15. On the subject of fortnight and sennight, my English education informed me that in earlier times we would count time not in terms of days as we do now but in nights – hence the fourteen night and seven night contractions we inherited.

  16. My college physics textbook had the conversion table for “furlongs per fortnight” in the back. You can’t find that in your calculators. The author (Hugh Young) had a sense of humor.

    • Carrying The Fire, the excellent autobiography of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (first published in 1974), mentions “furlongs per fortnight” in a section on Nasa-ese explaining astronauts report speed in feet per second, not miles per hour or furlongs per fortnight (p 76 in my 2001 unabridged Cooper Square edition).

  17. Fortnight is from fourteen nights, and sennight from seven nights. The latter is now long gone (I last found a reference in a Cumbrian dialect of English from the 18th century).

    As for the British and the (Southern states?) American phrase ‘you all’, no, it makes no sense to us. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog,at high school my English teacher came from Oklahoma and she shouted ‘Quieten down now y’all’. We were silent. We hadn’t a clue what she had just said. I took ‘y’all’ to meanyawl (a type of sailing boat) which only added to the confusion.

  18. Don’t forget that the French for fortnight (=14 nights) is “Quinze jours” (=15 days).

  19. Fortnight is not just a word. It’s a meaningful period of time. Here in Australia, people are typically paid fortnightly. Government pensions and benefits are paid fortnightly. Rent and mortgages are paid fortnightly.

    American software designers and app makers take note. Your programs are useless without reminders and tasks that can be repeated fortnightly.

    I don’t know how you do without them. A month is too long to wait to be paid and a week too short.

  20. Bloody French…. wankers the lot of em.

  21. TCM’s Silent Sunday Night feature last night was Mary Pickford’s 1919 film, “The Hoodlum”. (I was well into it before I realized I’d already seen it two years ago.) At one point, title cards announce that Mary’s character, Amy, and her grandfather are planning to leave on a steamer to Europe in a fortnight.

    At one point, Grandfather mentions how corporations “builded” this country, an apparently proper form of “built” at the time.

    Most interesting to me, however, was the window the movie provided on street jargon of post-WW I America, with words like “bones” (for dice), and phrases like, “Slip me your mitt” (for “Shake my hand).

  22. Well “mitt” or “mitts” is definitely a slang term for hand or hands here too on this side of the pond though possibly not as common as it once was.

  23. Pingback: “Fornightly” Falls Short | Not One-Off Britishisms

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