Fortnight and Four Score

Lesson: Understanding uncommon names for units of time

Most units of time are easy enough to grasp. Day, week, hour. Yeah, got it. We learned that in first grade. But when it comes to more obscure terms, it’s easy to get confused. That’s why today we’re learning about fortnight and four score.

Fortnight = fourteen days (a.k.a. two weeks)
I think most Americans have heard of this term, though I suspect most of us are unaware of how long a fortnight actually is. Fortnight, which is derived from the Old English word fēowertyne niht, means “fourteen nights.” The term is much more common in Great Britain, which spread the term to New Zealand and Australia, among other countries.

Just for the heck of it, here’s a quote from one of my favorite linguists, Samuel Johnson, where he drops the fortnight bomb:

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Four Score = eighty
I think the main reason most of us these days have even heard of this antiquated term is because of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address,” which begins:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Here, the four score and seven years means eighty-seven years, and it refers to the amount of time that had passed at the time of the speech since our country was founded in 1776.

Using the terms
If you live in America and you ask, “Mind if I crash at your place for a fortnight?” you’re probably going to get some weird looks. Likewise, I doubt you will find a “Happy Four Score Birthday, Grandpa!” card at the drug store. So, I wouldn’t be too concerned about finding a way to incorporate these two terms into your regular vocabulary, but it does come in handy, every once in a while, to know what they mean.


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