Saturday, October 15, 2005

Make my vocabulary error an XL

When is 40 not 40? When it's 39!

The NFL is running a series of image advertising spots on ESPN, the NFL Network and other outlets designed to get fans all lathered up for Super Bowl XL in Detroit. The ads feature the tagline "The Road to Forty" and refer to the coming game as the "40th Anniversary" of the Super Bowl. As someone who works with the language, they piss me off. Anyone else see why?

Super Bowl I was played on Jan. 15, 1967. Imagine you got married on that day. When would your first anniversary be? In January 1968. Now, what game was played in January 1968? Super Bowl II. Thus the first anniversary of the Super Bowl would actually be the second game played. And the 40th anniversary of the Super Bowl will be in 2007, not 2006. The game being played at Ford Field on Feb. 5 is indeed Super Bowl XL, but it's only the 39th anniversary of the Super Bowl.

The designers of the "Road to Forty" campaign will of course argue that the first occurrence of something constitutes the first anniversary, which is patent nonsense. Your wedding day is your wedding day; your first anniversary comes a year later. The word "anniversary" comes to us from the Latin anniversarius, meaning "the turn of the year." By definition, it's not an anniversary unless a year or a multiple of years has passed (and no, there's no such thing as a "six-month anniversary").

A final point I could make is that, strictly speaking, an anniversary is an annual commemoration of an event in the past. Calling this game the 40th -- or even 39th -- anniversary of the Super Bowl is to say the (one and only) Super Bowl occurred 40 (or 39) years ago, and what's happening now is just a commemoration of that game. It'd be accurate to call the game in Detroit the 39th birthday of the Super Bowl. But you know what? I'll let that slide.

(I fought this same battle in 1992 as a rookie copy editor at The Des Moines Register. That newspaper holds an annual bicycle ride across the state. The first RAGBRAI (as it came to be called) took place in 1973. In 1992, we were up to RAGBRAI XX. So naturally, as copy started to come in, story after story referred to the event as "RAGBRAI's 20th anniversary." Though I was a young'un, people actually listened to my higher-math argument that 1992 minus 1973 equals 19, not 20. It was agreed that we would refer to the "20th running" or even "20th year" of RAGBRAI. I was even amenable to saying "RAGBRAI turns 20." I was flexible, dammit. Then we all got nice T-shirts, made by, I think, the marketing department, that said "20th Anniversary RAGBRAI." You win some, you lose some.

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