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burned building

If you could ban a few words from the English language, which would they be? My Internet research shows that almost everyone who’s discussed the issue wants to ban words because they’re annoying, insensitive, or overused, but my own two candidates would be banned for far more pragmatic reasons. (As an aside, I’ve always thought that banning a word because it’s overused would be like closing a highway because lots of drivers are using it.)

Because the primary purpose of language is communication, I’d ban words that are always ambiguous and therefore make communication ineffective every time they’re used. Many words are ambiguous occasionally, and some ambiguity can be artful, as in the Keats line “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” However, words that are always ambiguous need to be stricken from pragmatic realms like safety and legislation, where misunderstandings can have serious consequences.

First on my chopping block would be “inflammable.” Given how often this word appears in safety labeling, it has no business carrying the opposite meanings of “yes, this will burn, so be very careful” and “no, this won’t burn, so feel free to light up a cigarette nearby.” Let’s ban this word and limit ourselves to “flammable” and “non-flammable.” A quick Internet search showed that both opposing meanings of “inflammable” are widely used in safety labeling, though apparently the industry isn’t overly concerned with language because the first Google search result was a material safety data sheet that misspelled the word “safety.”

Second on my banned list would be “biannual.” To me, it’s quite obvious this word should mean “every two years,” synonymous with “biennial.” After all, something that’s bicentennial occurs every 200 years, not every 50 years or 200 times a year; a biweekly meeting is held every two weeks, not twice a week; and a quadrennial event occurs every four years, not four times a year. By contrast, something that occurs twice a year is “semiannual,” just as something that occurs twice a week is “semiweekly.” Unfortunately, so many people use “biannual” for the opposite meaning of “twice a year” that it’s no longer safe to use this word at all without a 50-50 chance of being misunderstood, and many dictionaries present the two opposing meanings side by side with no trace of irony. I therefore propose that we abolish “biannual” and limit ourselves to the words “biennial” (every two years) and “semiannual” (twice a year), neither of which had an ambiguous meaning in any of the sources I checked.

In researching this blog post, I was surprised to discover that some people apparently use “bimonthly” to mean twice a month and “biweekly” to mean twice a week, the meanings for which I would use “semimonthly” and “semiweekly.” “Bimonthly” and “biweekly” don’t seem to have reached the 50-50 level of ambiguity that would mean they’ve lost all utility, but I fear they might eventually reach that point, and my axe will be ready.

For any readers who use the “bi-X” time words to mean “twice an X” instead of “once every two Xs,” I ask the following sincere questions:
1. Do you use the corresponding “semi-X” words?
2. If so, do you consider the “semi-X” words to be synonyms of the corresponding “bi-X” words, or, for example, would you use “semimonthly” to mean “once every two months”? (I’ve never observed the latter, but if someone uses “bimonthly” to mean “two [bi-] times per month,” then the same person would presumably use “semimonthly” to mean “half [semi-] a time per month,” which is equivalent to once every two months.)
3. What word do you use to mean “once every two Xs”? (For example, if you use “bimonthly” to mean “twice a month,” and either you don’t use the word “semimonthly” or you use “semimonthly” as a synonym of “bimonthly,” what adjective would you use to describe a periodical that’s published every two months?)

Aside from the scheduling of our own meetings and appointments, one of the main areas where these time words create ambiguity is legislation, so I searched federal statutes to see how these words were used and whether they were clarified by context. A search for “bimonthly” in the U.S. Code yielded seven results, six of which used it to mean “every two months,” either because context made it clear (16 USC 2625: “…sixty days in the case of an electric utility which uses a bimonthly billing system”), because frequencies were implicitly given in order (20 USC 1087dd: “payable quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly”), or because research elsewhere on the Internet verified that a “bimonthly bulletin” was published every two months, such as the Department of Energy’s bimonthly Better Buildings Bulletin. The seventh statute, dealing with U.S.-Russian space partnership, had a section entitled “Bimonthly Reporting on Russian Status,” but the body of the section specified that the reporting should actually be done “semiannually.” It therefore seems clear that “bimonthly” was probably meant as “once every two months” here as well, but equating “bimonthly” with “semiannual” implies that Congress thinks a year has four months, perhaps explaining why Congress gets so little done.  Of course, I shouldn’t knock Congress because this survey showed that they use “bimonthly” the same way I do, 100% of the time.

On the other hand, nearly every occurrence of “biannual” in U.S. federal laws was found to be ambiguous. A typical example was 33 USC 892c, which creates a Hydrographic Services Review Panel and dictates that they “shall meet on a biannual basis and [as needed],” but there’s no way to guess which meaning was intended. In the remaining statutes, sometimes it meant every two years; for example, 16 USC 1828 has a subsection entitled “Biennial updates” (unambiguously meaning every two years), which goes on to explain that the “Secretary shall provide biannual reports [on foreign fishing incursions].” On the other hand, 19 USC 2703a mandates a “biannual report” on the TAICNAR Haitian relief program, and Google searches elsewhere showed that these reports were produced every six months, with one report mentioning, “The ILO publishes its biannual reports in October and April of each year.” This legislative review confirmed my thesis that, whereas “bimonthly” is still generally understood to mean “every two months,” the word “biannual” has become too ambiguous to be usable.

Having dealt with the abominations of “inflammable” and “biannual,” I should acknowledge that there’s a large category of words called contronyms (or Janus words, or enantiodromes) that can have opposing meanings depending on context. For example, “cleave” could mean “cut” or “join.” However, it’s surprisingly difficult to construct real-world scenarios and sentences in which most contronyms would be ambiguous, while it’s nearly impossible to imagine a context in which “inflammable” or “biannual” isn’t ambiguous, unless the rest of the sentence makes the word nearly superfluous. (“Let’s produce biannual updates to this encyclopedia; we’ll release them in even-numbered years.”)

Are any other words too ambiguous to salvage? Or are there words you’d like to ban for an entirely different reason?

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