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VOL. 43 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 27, 2019

Stop the nonsense about when the new decade begins

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As Jan. 1 approaches, a familiar controversy returns about what the New Year will or will not bring about. As a veteran of such disputes, I will attempt to debunk it again.

You remember of course the Y2K scare of 1999, when many people were predicting chaos would occur as the calendar flipped over because computer software systems wouldn’t recognize a year starting with “20.”

OK, not that controversy. There is no Y2K20 scare that I’m aware of.

I mean the other issue then, the one less apocalyptic in scope, involving when the 21st century (and thus, a new millennium) would begin. Two schools of thought existed:

Jan. 1, 2000. So, on New Year’s Eve, party like it’s 1999.

Jan. 1, 2001. Save the good Champagne.

My employer at the time, The New York Times, tried (and still tries) to have it both ways. Its Manual of Style and Usage has this to say on the subject:

“Technically, a century begins with the 01 year – 1901, 2001, etc. – because there was no year 0. But in the popular consciousness, ‘turn of the century’ means 1900, 2000, etc.”

As a former employee, no longer bound by such rules, I call malarkey on the 01 notion, which The Times resurrected in a recent article that ran with this headline: “When Does the New Decade Begin: In a Month, or a Year From Now?”

Here is an excerpt from that article, common-sense checked [BETWEEN BRACKETS] by yours truly.

“In recent years there has been debate about when a decade begins and ends.” [NO THERE HASN’T.]

“For some people, the next decade will begin on Jan. 1, 2020, and end on Dec. 31, 2029.” [THESE ARE THE RATIONAL PEOPLE.]

“For others, it won’t start until Jan. 1, 2021, concluding on Dec. 31, 2030.” [THESE ARE NOT.]

“To the average person — well, many of us — it can be very confusing.” [QUANTUM PHYSICS IS CONFUSING. THIS IS SIMPLE.]

The article goes on to quote a supposed expert from the United States Naval Observatory, which is the nation’s official timekeeper. The Observatory’s official position is that the new century/millennium began on Jan. 1, 2001, and hence that the next decade will begin in 2021.

If you accept that as true, then 2020 will not be part of the decade of the 20s. And 2030 will.

This, I suggest, is madness.

As it happens, I have some history with this topic even before 1999. Way back in 1986, prompted by a question to a trivia show on radio for which I was a panelist, I tackled in print the issue of when the 21st century would begin.

I wrote then, as I do now, on behalf of reason rather than an overly literal devotion to “math.” And I tackled head-on the “No Year 0” explanation, and offered what I modestly called a simple solution:

“Decree that the first century had only 99 years. The first decade had only nine years. Then everything will be back on track.”

Granted, there’s no official body that can issue that decree. In its absence, I hereby do so myself:

So let it be written, so let it be done.

Meanwhile, I find myself wondering how this coming decade, which we can now all agree starts Jan. 1, 2020, will be defined. One hundred years ago, we had the famous Roaring Twenties, so named for the “exuberant, freewheeling popular culture of the decade,” dictionary.com states.

I’m not necessarily hoping for a return of the same. Given the unsettling events of the past few years, I’m hoping this next decade goes down as the Boring Twenties.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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