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The meaning and origin of the expression: Annus horribilis

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Annus horribilis

Meaning

A horrible year.

Origin

Derived from the Latin phrase 'annus mirabilis' - year of wonders (or miracles). Recorded since the mid 1980's but brought into popular use after Queen Elizabeth II used it to describe 1992 - the year that the marriages of her two sons Charles and Andrew broke down and Windsor Castle caught fire.

John Dryden used the term 'annus mirabilis' in the title of his epic poem Annus Mirabilis: the year of wonders 1666. The poem was published in 1667 and commemorates the English defeat of the Dutch naval fleet and the Great Fire of London. Dryden apparently considered the fact that much of London was spared from the fire and Charles II's plans for a speedy restoration of the burned districts as a sign that God had performed miracles for England. He seems not to have been swayed in his 'year of wonders' opinion by the continuing Great Plague, which killed 20% of London's population (and which he was well aware of and left London to avoid). Looking back, The Great Fire of London and bubonic plague in the same year seems more horribilis than mirabilis, but Dryden had the advantage of living through it, so he should know.

The earliest citation of 'annus horribilis' in print is from a report in The Guardian, March 1985:

"Unlike the earlier Kostelec stories, however, The Engineer of Human Souls was written in exile in Toronto, where he was driven by the annus mirabilis, annus horribilis of 1968..."

windsorThe phrase came to a wide audience in Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas message in 1992, where she said:

"1992 is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an 'annus horribilis'".

That sympathetic correspondent was Sir Edward William Spencer Ford, GCVO, KCB, ERD, DL, a former Assistant Private Secretary to the Queen and previously to her father King George VI. He may well have been harking back to the 1666 'annus mirabilis', rather than picking it up from the Guardian report or other uses of the phrase between 1985 and 1992. The link between the Great Fire of London and the fire at Windsor Castle, which had taken place just a few days earlier, is quite easy to make. Whatever route the phrase took, it has now been added to the list of Latin phrases that have been adopted into English.

Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, used the phrase in a speech on 21st December 2004:

"There's no doubt that this has been a particularly difficult year, and I am relieved that this annus horribilis is coming to an end."

This was generally supposed to have been a reference to questions concerning his and his son's alleged involvement in the UN's Oil for Food Programme. Of course, Annan couldn't have known that the worst disaster of the year was yet to come when, on December 26th, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people.

A new term really knows it has made it into the language when it spawns imitators. Whenever 'politician of your choosing' misuses power we can expect newspaper headlines the next day to include 'politician of your choosing'-gate. Oil-for-food-programme-gate was clearly a step too far, but we do have these:

- A reference to the year that Britney Spears married and soon afterwards divorced as 'Annus Trashus'.

- Yahoo News reference to 2005 as 'Annus Miserabilis' (although that could just be a spelling mistake).

- A comic magazine called 'Anus Horibilis'. (presumably there's only one spelling mistake there).

See also - Latin Phrases in English.