fortnight (n.)

When I was about fourteen or fifteen years old I was utterly in love with the stories about Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion Dr Watson. Possibly that is one of the reasons I have been so captivated by House MD, a character very closely modelled on Holmes. The strange yet often quite easily deducible vocabulary allured to me. Words in Doyle were my favourite puzzles.

One of the words that for the longest time escaped all my attempts at decoding was this week’s specimen. You see, I would never use a dictionary. That was my challenge. Sure enough that was before I found out what fascinating reading dictionaries make.

Fortnight eluded me for the longest time despite being an easy case. When – years later, already studying linguistics on university level – I found out the etymology it was so blatantly obvious that I was literally laughing and figuratively  crying. At the same time. Fourteen nights, contracted to fortnight.

A word for the period of time that lasts two weeks. In German we do not – as far as I can see – have a one-word translation for fortnight. It is a piece of vocabulary now widely put out of use. It bears witness to a time in history when things were allowed to last two weeks. Like a letter to arrive, or travelling from one place to another, or finding information pertaining the disappearance of a piece of precious jewellery or even an heir to it, as might have been the case in one of Holmes’ mysteries.

Maybe I can put it back to use and rename this column. Stop calling it “word of the week” and name it “fortnightly vocabulary reflections”. Naw, I don’t think, so. Though it would take the pressure off a bit.


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