Saturday, May 10, 2014


Yes, I already knew a fortnight was two weeks. And anyone who actually thinks this through and realizes that two weeks is fourteen days will be much closer to solving the mystery of why it's called this than I was. So to them, it will make perfect sense that it's a seventeenth century contraction of the Middle English fourteniht, which in turn goes back to Old English feowertyne niht, which at least looks like it would have a lovely kind of lilt to it. I got all this from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and (here's one of the many reasons I love this source) it goes on to say:

"literally "fourteen nights," preserving the ancient Germanic custom of reckoning by nights, mentioned by Tacitus in "Germania" xi."

It's the thought to mention Tacitus that I love. Although as the Online Etymology Dictionary itself is really more of a compilation than a commentary, I am not sure exactly who thought Tacitus was worth a mention here, or, for that matter, when.

Someone's idea of the historian

But fortnight is not really an American word unless you're one of those perversely recalcitrant peoples like the Amish or the Canadians. So it's no surprise really that my first exposure to the word came through some old-fashioned literature. Memory wants to have it as Jane Austen, but I think it was coming across something more random and obscure than that. Or maybe it was "Little Women". An American work--I know, I know. But it's not an American word now.

Rightly or wrongly, though, my memory has it that I was reading a story of some kind where some young ladies had been invited to spend some time where the regiment was quartered. A fortnight, in fact. So probably indelibly, I will always associate a fortnight with time spent at forts.  

(The photo is not from a Jane Austen movie, by the way. It is a still I happened to come across from a British show called The Supersizers Go Regency.) You could say that it is an homage...


  1. I bet you are right about Alcott--Little Women or Eight Cousins.

  2. It is indeed in Little Women and practically every Jane Austen novel there is. For that matter, I just came across it in the Trollope novel I was just reading. I suppose there is no particular reason that the U.S dropped it and Canada didn't, but it is interesting, since it's hardly the most impenetrable of borders.

  3. I was surprised to read of the connection between fortnight and Canada. I grew up in Canada drinking my tea with milk and trying not to spill it on the chesterfield, lest I ruin its upholstery's colours. But I find fortnight as charmingly archaic as my American friends do. I never heard it while growing up.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Yes, I was a bit surprised at that too. It was just a Wikipedia thing:

    Fortnight and fortnightly are commonly used words in the English-speaking world, where many wages and salaries and most social security benefits are paid on a fortnightly basis,[3] except North America, where it is rare outside of some Canadian regions and insular traditional communities (e.g. Amish) in the United States".

    I suspect it would be in the more England leaning provinces or regions, whatever those might be. From reading John McFetridge's novels, I'm guessing not Toronto.

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  6. The Anglicism I had long read about and was pleased to hear in England a few years ago was "week" where we would say "a week from," e.g., "We're going to London Thursday week."