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Fantasies: what would you do to improve the English language?

On holiday driving through the city at three in the morning you realize what life could be like. Gliding across junctions that are normally clogged up and impassable; rolling along sections of road in two minutes that would keep you half an hour in the morning rush hour; crossing the river you’ve scarcely noticed for years and enjoying moonlight sparkle on the water and the still swans floating majestically.

Holidays encourage fantasies of living your whole life in a perfect world without unpleasantness or difficulty of any kind. This is how life should be, one feels. And then the holidays end. The French have a word for this time of year, based not on the descent of leaves but on what we actually do: la rentrée, the going back, the end of the holidays, back to school, back to work. Wouldn’t it be good if we had a word for it too? It’s a harmless fantasy—a word for everything.

Sixteen going on seventy

One of the most persistent fantasies I have for improving the English language is to do something about the teens. Not those beings who emerge from the dark just in time for mid-afternoon with moods like touch-paper. I’m thinking of our numbers, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and the rest, who sound so much like thirty, forty, fifty. Only last week I came upon a stranger just round the corner from the Dictionary offices, looking for number 40. The houses really did seem to run out at 37 and she was all but in tears. The address in her hand had been transcribed from a phone conversation. She phoned her friend again. He lived at one, four, as he should have said the first time.

So that’s two improvements to the English language. We think up our own word for la rentrée, and some new words for the teens (not treize, quatorze, quinze). Another one would be to sort out once and for all the confusion over what di and bi mean. They mean something to do with two, but quite what, whether that’s multiplying by two or dividing, is often far from clear.

A distinction to di for?

During the middle of the nineteenth century dichloride (in the name of chemical compounds) changed from meaning half a chlorine atom, to meaning two. In 1831 Thomas Thomson, in his First Principles of Chemistry, called the molecule with one atom of chlorine and two of antimony, dichloride of antimony. By 1859, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Charles Wood’s dichloride of platinum contained two atoms of chlorine for every one platinum.

Chemists have sorted themselves out now and dichloride always means two chlorines, but the rest of us are not so clear. Take biweekly. Sometimes it means every two weeks, and sometimes it means twice a week. And it’s the same with bimonthly, and biyearly.

For example a few weeks ago, the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard reported that ‘The mobile library..stops on a bi-weekly basis on Mondays at Marston Meysey Village Hall..with the next visit on Monday, August 13.’ Clearly every two weeks. And the British national newspaper, The Independent, had, ‘A number of great managers – starting with Jose Mourinho – might say the ordeal of the bi-weekly press call is somewhat reduced when you can spend at least some parts of the other five days reading that your only remaining challenge is to walk on water.’ That must be twice a week. With these examples you can tell what is meant, but mostly you can’t.

Bi: a bunch of flowers

There is a distinction between biannual (twice a year) and biennial (every two years) but, unsurprisingly, people do muddle them. Especially common is biannual plant, meaning a plant, (more commonly called a biennial) like foxglove or lupin, that takes two years after germinating before it flowers. Perhaps the confusion comes because everyone knows about annual plants, and biannual seems to continue a series. But then perennial, a plant that goes on for ever, is also widely used.

Fantasy is a chance to set logic aside. You will have your own linguistic fantasies, but, sadly, like mine, and like the idea of having the city roads to yourself every morning, that’s all they will remain. Until next summer.