Sunday, 15 August 2010


I consider myself to be fairly well read and as such have a fairly large vocabulary. It is unusual, therefore, for me to come across not only a word I haven't heard before but one for which I can't even work out a meaning from it's context. The word in question... quinquennium.

As readers of my photography blog will already know we recently had a day out to Helmsley in North Yorkshire. As well as enjoying the fine views of the castle and the wildlife in the walled garden we spent an enjoyable half an hour browsing around an antiquarian and secondhand bookshop, not something I've ever really done before1. Whilst looking through the Yorkshire History section one book jumped out at me: The Story of A Modern University; A History of the University of Sheffield. Given that between us Bryony and I have graduated three times from the University I decided to buy the book without even looking at it's contents.

In 2005 the University celebrated it's centenary and as part of that celebration published a book, The Steel City Scholars, which documented the first one hundred years of the University. As someone who enjoys history I pre-ordered a copy without even thinking about it, and while I've flicked through it I haven't read it in any detail. The book I bought in Helmsley was published in 1955 to celebrate the first fifty years of the University. It is a very different book.

The Steel City Scholars draws on many first hand accounts to given an accessible and highly interesting account of the University's first century. In contrast the book I found in that secondhand bookshop is a scholarly work. I wouldn't necessarily describe it as dry but I think I'm even less likely to read this one in detail. Nevertheless I'm glad I bought it, if for no other reason than it taught me a new word; quinquennium. The second paragraph of the introduction reads:
The period with which it deals begins with the foundation of the institutions which were later to unite to form the University, and ends with the summer of 1952. This latter date is convenient not only for reasons of publication but particularly because it coincides with the end of an eventful Vice-Chancellorship, and also with the end of a financial quinquennium during which, largely by progressive increases of government grants, the University's activities and resources had been multiplied beyond all the imaginings of earlier times.
So here we have a word which I had never heard before and had no idea of it's meaning. In retrospect I could have worked out that it was related to time but without a classical education involving Latin I think I would have been hard pressed to figure out that it means a period of five years.

I'm actually tempted to keep reading to see if I learn any more new words2!

1 As a child I remember spending lots of times in second hand bookshops but we were always looking in vain for one specific book never just browsing for fun. My Dad is an avid fan of Nigel Tranter and I believe now has a copy of every book he has ever written. Whilst I wouldn't describe myself as from a poor background, my parents were always careful with money (my Dad is, after all, a Yorkshireman) and so he would wait until a new novel was published in paperback before buying it. Unfortunately one novel, The Lion Let Loose, was never published in paperback and by the time we realised this we couldn't find a hardback copy anywhere, hence the trips to secondhand bookshops. Eventually he wrote to the publishers who agreed to republish the book in paperback and so our trips to secondhand book shops dried up.

2 The last time I came across a new word was again in an old book. In fact it wasn't a new word but a new meaning. I was reading Bryony's Grandmother's favourite book, The Roadmender by Michael Fairless, which starts I have attained my ideal: I am a roadmender some would say stonebreaker. Both titles are correct, but one is more pregnant than the other. Now I know that there are multiple meanings for the word pregnant but I had no idea what the meaning was in this context. Fortunately Bryony's Dad (Scriptor Senex) not only gave me a copy of The Roadmender but also a copy of Barclay's Dictionary which dates to the mid to late 19th century. The dictionary is fantastic, deserves a post of it's own, and defines pregnant as teeming; breeding; big with young. Fruitful; or causing fertility. Full of consequence. Evident; clear. Easy to produce. I'm assuming that the relevant definition is full of consequence which I'd never heard of or used before.

3 I can't believe I wrote a blog post requiring footnotes!
16 August 2010 at 10:36 , Rob said...

Well, I recognised the "Quin" as five straight away and the word reminded me of millenium which made me guess at it being a period of time. My initial guess was 500 though so I was off by 10000% :)

Good word though!

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