Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Centenarian is Probably Not a Centurion

This article is from Daily Writing Tips - a source of many good grammatical tips for teachers of English: 

A reader was startled when a television announcer misused the word centurion:

Perhaps one of your columns could cover the meanings of “centurion” and “centenarian.” A news anchor on KTTC-TV, Rochester, Minn., just announced “There is a new centurion in Clear Lake, Iowa.” (This “new centurion” is a woman celebrating her 100th birthday. A centenarian centurion?)

I was amused, but assumed that the anchor’s error was unique and that I wouldn’t be able to find enough material to write a post on this misuse. My assumption was that any English speaker who has read a book or watched a movie set in ancient Roman times, or who has a superficial acquaintance with the New Testament knows the historical meaning of centurion.
I was wrong. 

The use of centurion in the place of centenarian is widespread in discussions of longevity on the Web. Here are just three examples:

In this article we take lessons from the centurion communities of the world to gain priceless insight into how we too can live the longest.

In Okinawa, where the life expectancy is the highest on earth, 803 of 920 centurions who were alive as of September 2011 were women.

Daisy McFadden, a longtime resident of New York, will celebrate her 100th birthday this November. Still active, she believes her eating habits have greatly contributed to her longevity, as do most centurions.

I found an article in a Canadian publication in which the writer acknowledges that centenarian is the word usually used to describe a person who has reached the age of one hundred, but seems to think that centurion is a better word to describe a centenarian who remains in good health:

There are more than 4,600 Canadians now 100 or older. Estimates are that the United States might have a million people 100 or older by 2050. If those estimates are accurate, 43 years from now, many of those Boomers you see every day will be the new “centurions,” which strikes me as a better way to describe centenarians. Just as 60 is the new 50 today, 100 will be the new 90! 

Note: Joseph Wambaugh titled one of his novels The New Centurions. As it is about the lives of Los Angeles policemen, I don’t get the connection. Neither did Wambaugh’s British publishers, apparently. In the UK, the book was published as Precinct 45: Los Angeles Police

Centurion and centenarian are among several English words derived from the Latin word for one hundred: centum

In the ancient Roman army, a centurion was the officer in charge of a century, a unit originally comprised of 100 men. 

In the context of cricket, centurion refers to a player who has scored 100 points (a century):
Surrey teenager Dominic Sibley becomes youngest double centurion in County Championship history

Dominic Sibley swapped school books for record books by becoming the youngest batsman in County Championship history to score a double century. 

This is a valid extension of meaning in a modern context.

Using centurion to replace centenarian is unnecessary. Centenarian already exists with the meaning “a person who has reached the age of one hundred.”

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