Last weekend, Britain celebrated a jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. If we were to follow the original sense of the word, we should have announced it with a blast on a ram’s horn and have taken the whole year off, not just four days.
Jubilee looks as though it comes from the Latin word that also gave us jubilation and its relatives. In truth they’re not connected, but we have the Romans to blame for getting them mixed up. Jubilee is actually from the ancient Hebrew yobel for a ram and, by extension, a ram’s horn (the word used today for the ram’s horn, shofar, is unconnected). Every fifty years a special year of emancipation and restoration was set aside, in which fields were left uncultivated and slaves were freed (for the details, see the Old Testament book of Leviticus, chapter 25). As the ram’s horn announced it, the word was transferred to the year itself.
It travelled via Greek to Latin, where it became confused with jubilare, to shout or cry out (used by early Christians in the sense of shouting for joy). By the time the word had arrived in English, the two senses of celebration and of something happening every fifty years had become so mixed up that it was used for a fiftieth anniversary or its celebration. So it is strictly correct to refer to the current event as a jubilee, with no qualification.
Until the end of the nineteenth century the word could only be used in this way: for a fiftieth anniversary. Queen Victoria changed all that. She reigned for so long that her subjects had to find a way of distinguishing between the dates of her 50 years and 60 years on the throne, in 1887 and 1897. The term Diamond Jubilee was invented specifically for the 1897 celebration.
The diamond modifier was borrowed from its existing use to describe a sixtieth wedding anniversary. This — plus silver, golden and some others — had appeared in the language at about the middle of the nineteenth century, introduced via American English from German.
Even after the 1897 celebration became known as the Diamond Jubilee, the 1887 one was still called The Jubilee or The Royal Jubilee; only later did it become known as the Golden Jubilee, so people could unambiguously distinguish it from the later one. And then jubilee started to be used with other qualifiers, such as silver for a 25th anniversary, so losing its link to the fiftieth year altogether and changing its sense to little more than “special anniversary”. Golden jubilee, the official name for the current royal celebrations, is therefore a retronym, derived from a term whose scope has changed so much that its original meaning has to be qualified (other examples are manual typewriter and acoustic guitar.
Since her mother lived to be almost 102, there seems every chance that we shall be celebrating Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Thanks to Queen Victoria, we already have a name for it.