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Pronounced /hɛbˈdɒmədəl/Help with pronunciation

The writer Max Beerbohm wrote in 1930 that his period as the drama critic of the Saturday Review between 1898 and 1910 (he got the job on the recommendation of his predecessor, George Bernard Shaw) was like walking a “hebdomadal tight-rope”. However, he found it to be a salutary discipline for a freelance writer, since the requirement to provide a regular “fugitive article for a largish public is no bad thing for a writer”. How true.

More recently, a similar plaint has been expressed:

Its full moniker is Pre-Deadline Tension, the bane of wordsmiths such as myself with a hebdomadal column to devise, write, rewrite, endlessly tweak and, usually at the eleventh hour, email to a hotly expectant press.

Alison Taylor, in the Liverpool Daily Post, 7 Feb. 2008.

Hebdomadal, you will have gathered if you didn’t know already, refers to something that occurs every seven days. In the UK it is rare enough that almost all of its appearances in recent decades referred to the executive body of the University of Oxford, the Hebdomadal Council. Since that body’s demise in 2000, to be replaced by the prosaically named University Council, the word is now even rarer.

Its source is, suitably for an ancient university, classical Greek. Hepta meant seven, still familiar in the name of the athletic contest, heptathlon, and somewhat less so in heptagon, a seven-sided figure. The immediate Greek origin was hebdomad, a group of seven things or a period of seven days. English acquired it from late Latin hebdomadalis early in the seventeenth century. Its sense of something happening every seven days was first employed by Richard Steele in the Spectator in 1711.

Its decline may be due to its being surplus to requirements, English having the perfectly serviceable weekly from Germanic languages. Those few people who use it today mostly intend it humorously.

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Page created 27 Oct 2012