Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Millenium mistake

with 5 comments

Millennium Dome with Canada Tower. Millennium ...

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s an apt headline in more ways than one:

The Artist of the Millenium Mistake

At the 2002 MTV Video Music awards, Britney Spears presented Jackson with a 44th birthday cake on stage. When Britney spoke of him as the ”artist of the millenium”, Jackson got confused and thought he was being awarded a nonexistant ”artist of the millenium award”. (Telegraph online.)

The wrongly spelt ‘millenium’ is then repeated in the copy. Might as well be consistent, I suppose.

In the writer’s defence, ‘millennium’ is commonly misspelt with only one ‘n’. The Oxford Dictionary of English explains that this is probably because the word is similar to other words spelt with one ‘n’, such as:

  • Millenarian (Not another word for a millionaire, but referring to the beliefs of a political or religious group. See Oxford Dictionaries.)
  • Millenary (Not related to making hats, but a word meaning a period of a thousand years, or a thousandth anniversary. See Oxford Dictionaries.)

‘Millennium’, on the other hand, is formed by analogy with words such as ‘biennium’, which means a specific period of two years.

The eagle-eyed among you will also have noticed that ‘nonexistant’ in the Telegraph copy quoted above should be spelt ‘non-existent’ (US: nonexistent).

Extra homework is being handed out as I speak.


Spelling tips and tricks

Commonly confused and just plain wrong


5 Responses

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  1. Gosh, I always thought with one N it was just an Americanism (although still “wrong”).

    But it is a huge annoyance and a common mistake – especially as we have a Millennium Stadium and the Wales Millennium Centre here in Cardiff.

    Keep up the good work.


    16/10/2010 at 10:01 am

    • Hi, Pat — many thanks for dropping by. I just double-checked the American thing. It’s definitely not an alternative spelling there. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage says:

      The spelling of the word shouldn’t be any mystery: millennium has been spelled millennium for about a millennium.

      He makes the further interesting point (I hadn’t thought about it) that the plural of ‘millennium’ can be either ‘millennia’ or ‘millenniums’. Apparently the former is preferred in the US and the latter in Blighty. But either is perfectly acceptable.


      16/10/2010 at 10:16 am

  2. I can think of two instances where we in the US have had to use “millennium” and spell it right: The Millennium Falcon spaceship in Star Wars (see entry in Wookieepedia) and the debate over whether the new millennium began in 2000 or 2001.

    I was trying to think of mnemonic aids. “Ennium” is like “annual,” and no one should misspell that. Or picture the two Ns bookending the thousand years.

    Michael Farrell

    16/10/2010 at 4:22 pm

    • Hi, Michael — thinking of ‘annual’ is a good tip. Re. use of ‘millennium’ — you must have had the huge fuss about the so-called ‘millennium bug’ destined to cause computer meltdown and the end of life as we know it. Except it didn’t.


      16/10/2010 at 4:40 pm

  3. Yes. Till the next one.

    Michael Farrell

    16/10/2010 at 4:47 pm

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