Q&A: Centenary vs Centennial

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week a question that was 100 years in the making…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question – it’s to do with commemorating or celebrating 100 years of something. Is it called a ‘centenary’ or a ‘centennial’?
A: Good question. Well, both derive from the Latin ‘centum’ – to mean one hundred. Which of course is the origin of plenty of terms like per cent, centimetre, centigrade, cents…

Q: Centre?
A: No, that one comes from the Latin ‘centrum’ – more to do with drawing circles with compasses and that sort of thing – centrifugal and all those words branch off that.

Q: Oh okay. So back to the original question – centenary or centennial?
A: They are actually interchangeable and can technically both be used as a noun and an adjective. However, historically American English loves a mighty fine centennial, while British English has favoured a jolly good centenary – and we tend to follow their lead here in Australia. Back in 1988, for example, some people called it “The Bicentenary”.

Q: So have these two words both been around for a long time?
A: Centuries in fact! And the confusion and frustration has been happening for almost as long – see this New York Times article written back in 1911.

Q: So here in Australia a century is a set period of 100 years (i.e. 1901 to 2000) and a centenary is any period of 100 years – like the Anzac Centenary.
A: Exactly. We can use ‘centennial’ as an adjective (“the commemorative bicentennial coin”), but not usually as a noun. If you tried searching ‘Anzac Centennial’ online, you wouldn’t find as much.

Q: Well thanks for that. Would have taken me at least one hundred years to figure all that out.
A: We highly doubt that, but you’re most welcome.

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