The Grammarphobia Blog

Annus horribilis

Q: I’ve been seeing much of the Latin phrase “annus horribilis” lately. It’s been in the New York Times in reference to Britney Spears, Michael Dell, Martin Amis, and many other people in the news. Can you tell me something about the expression? Did it originate with Queen Elizabeth II?

A: The Queen used the phrase in her 1992 Christmas message at the end of a scandalous year for the royal family that included a fire at Windsor Castle. Although she popularized “annus horribilis” (horrible year), she didn’t coin it.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1985 article in the Guardian newspaper. The author uses the term as a play on the expression “annus mirabilis” in The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel by Josef Skvorecky.

As for “annus mirabilis” (wonderful year), it’s been around for centuries. The OED’s first reference is in the title of a 1667 poem by Dryden about the English defeat of the Dutch navy and London’s recovery from the Great Fire.

I imagine that the Queen (or her speechwriter) was aware that fire played a major role in both Dryden’s “annus mirabilis” and Elizabeth’s “annus horribilis.”

I agree with you that we’ve been seeing a lot of “annus horribilis” lately. Too much, as far as I’m concerned. It’s getting to be horribly tiresome.

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