annus mirabilis

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annus mirabilis

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Aug 30, 2015 7:24 pm

I was reading the special September 2015 issue of Scientific American, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s publication of his general theory of relativity. In the discussion they identify 1905 as his annus mirabilis, “the year that while working eight hours days, six days a week at the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four papers [[see Wikipedia: Special theory of relativity, photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2)]] in his spare time that changed the course of physics.”

It seemed pretty obvious to me that in this instance annus mirabilis means something like the “year of miracles.” I decided to check this out just to see if this is what it always means – it ain’t.


ANNUS MIRABILIS noun [1667]: A year noted for disasters or wonders; a fateful year. "Hungary's blood bath was the saddest event in that annus mirabilis" (C.L. Sulzberger). [New Latin annus mīrābilis : Latin annus, year + Latin mīrābilis, wondrous.]

OXFORD DICTIONARIES [MERRIAM-WEBSTER] noun: A remarkable or auspicious [notable] year.

COLLINS DICTIONARIES noun: A year of wonders, catastrophes, or other notable events.

OXFORD ENGLLSH DICTIONARY noun: A remarkable or auspicious year. [Modern Latin ‘wonderful year.’]

Interesting! If I hadn’t looked it up I never would have guessed that annus mirabilis could be a year of disasters, although 'mirabilis' does sound a little like 'miserable.' But maybe disasters can be good too – I’ll have to check that out. (<:)

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1667 (title) “Annus Mirabilis: the year of wonders, 1666.” by Dryden

<1767 “This has been everywhere an annus mirabilis for bad weather.”—Letters, 1 June (modernized text, 1932) by Lord Chesterfield, VI. page 2815>

<1885 “The years of evil fame which followed the annus mirabilis of 1815.”—Good Words, January, page 63/1>

<1940 “In 1848, the annus mirabilis of European history, a movement arose which shook the core of Europe.”—The 19th Century, February, page 157>

<1959 “By then he [sc. Tennyson] was successful and famous, his annus mirabilis of 1850 already three years behind him.”—The Listener, 13 August, page 251/1>

<1975.“An annus mirabilis it wasn’t. But 1975 sure could have been worse. It could, for example, have been 1974.”—Barron’s National Business and Financial National Weekly, 5 June, page 1>

<1990 “Stephen Spender states with moving simplicity a view of the annus mirabilis of 1989 that tens of millions surely share. ‘The collapse of the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is something that I had given up hope of witnessing in my lifetime. . . . I now have the almost Biblical sense of being privileged to witness a miracle.’"—Boston Globe, 27 March, page 61>

<2006 “Profumo is the son of the man whose liaison with the call-girl, Christine Keeler, contributed to - some would say brought about - the fall of Harold Macmillan's government in, yes, 1963, that annus mirabilis.”—The Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), 14 October>

<2015 “Nineteen thirty-nine is known as the movies' annus mirabilis, or wonderful year. Titles released in 1939 include ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Ninotchka’ [[??]], ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ‘Only Angels Have Wings,’ and ‘Gunga Din.’”—Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 23 August.>
Note: In many instances, not knowing the context makes it difficult or impossible to tell if annus mirabilis is referring to a good or bad year.

Ken Greenwald – August 30, 2015

Re: annus mirabilis

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 31, 2015 11:10 am

How interesting. Thanks for that, Ken. Like you, I had always assumed that it was strictly positive.

Perhaps "momentous" or "portentous" gets it better than "miraculous".
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: annus mirabilis

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Aug 31, 2015 7:21 pm

Conventionally, the opposite term to ‘annus mirabilis’ is ‘annus horribilis’ (see the description at Wikipedia, from which I quote below):
Although the phrase is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as being in use as early as 1985, it was brought to prominence by Queen Elizabeth II, in a speech to the Guildhall on 24 November 1992, marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, in which she described the closing of the year as an annus horribilis.
"1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis".
(The Wikipedia article then recites the reasons.)

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