30 December 2019


In the twelve days before Christmas, the Beeb had some fool journalist on daily, providing programmes apparently based upon an assumption that the Twelve Days of Christmas were the twelve days leading up to Christmas.

Last Saturday's Times Newspaper had a First Leader, based upon the illiterate ... or do I mean innumerate ... assumption that we are just about to finish "the second decade of the 21st century" ("As we bid our farewells to a decade ...").

I thought the essential point at issue here had been adequately established, around the time of "the Millennium", when it was explained that the third millennium began on 1 January 2001.

This is because, when the system of years "BC" and "AD" was clamped onto the older ways of listing years ("X Yque consulibus", etc.), this was done by making "1 BC" to be followed immediately by "1 AD" , there being no such oddity as a "Year 0" in between the two of them. (A fortiori, there were not two such years as "0 BC and "0 AD.)

If you feel sceptical about this, you can check it by googling the list of Roman Consuls. 

There was thus what we might call a "dot-point", the instaneous  moment at which (what we now call) 1 BC tipped over straight into (what we now call) 1 AD, with nothing in between them.

And ten years from that dot-point had not elapsed until the end of the day (which we now call) 31 December AD 10.

The second decade of 'the Christian era' began on 1 January AD 11.

Try doing it on your fingers, if you still enjoy ten of them.

That is why the Third Millennium started on 1 January 2001.

And it is why the third decade of this century will not start until 1 January 2021.

Whatever the poor half-wits who write the Times Leaders may think about it.

"Paper of Record", indeed!!!!! Somebody should check how many fingers they each have and give them an Office Abacus and a set of dunces' hats.

(This all has nothing to do with when Christ was 'actually' born, and I shall not publish comments which go in pursuit of that red herring.)


Colin Spinks said...

Father, it is indeed disturbing to see such levels of ignorance at the highest level. I used to think people rather stupid for implying that "Twelfth Night" fell on 6th January and was synonymous with Epiphany, whereas we all (?!) know if we use both our six-fingered hands it is 5th January. On the subject of new decades, I am more sympathetic to popular error. You are of course perfectly correct in stating the new decade does not start until 1 January 2021 and with sound reasoning. However, because we are used to marking our own birthdays with extra solemnity when the unit of ten changes, it is somehow thought natural to do the same with years; we have a 40th birthday party for instance not a party to "mark the start of our 41st year". And I would much rather go to a well attended party celebrating the beginning of the "20s" than sit in splendid isolation bemoaning others' ignorance! In other words: "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" Happy New Year!

PM said...

The incomparable Richie Benaud once drily observed that, if the new century and millenium indeed began on 1 January 2000, we should have to rewrite Wisden and award a century to every batsman dismissed for 99. (Apologies to readers across the Atlantic)

On dating systems, I was struck, when looking some years ago at the magnificent Concilia and Annales Ecclesiastici produced by the great
eighteenth-century scholar-bishop Giovanni Dominici Mansi, that Mansi's principal method of dating was not BC/AD but ab urbe condita. Romanitas certainly ran deep.

Colin Spinks said...

Emma Fox, in her book "Reading the English" asserts that the English take longer than any other people to leave social gatherings. Perhaps the leader writer had something of this in mind when claiming we are "saying our goodbyes" to this decade. Maybe if we start now we will have finally got ourselves on the way home by 31 December 2020! Incidentally, this habit of continually saying one must leave and then staying for another drink/conversation/exchange of phone numbers/"must catch up properly soon"s is now referred to as "Bercowing" in honour of the Speaker (D)emeritus.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. For a very long time Christendom kept Christmas Day as the first day of the year, as Dom Gueranger noted.

When the smiling clerk tells ABS to Have a nice day he responds, Merry Christmas and does this for the forty days of Christmastide.

Sadly, few clerks ask ABS why the response...

It is almost as if our exchange is a meaningless cultural habit that reaches back to antiquity and the popularity of the phrase beginning in the 1950s.

One supposes it is better than the Bombs away said by the wry Green Mountain clerk to the man buying canned goods for his shelter in the 1960s.

Tee Pee Gee Eff said...

@ Colin Spinks:
"However, because we are used to marking our own birthdays with extra solemnity when the unit of ten changes, it is somehow thought natural to do the same with years; we have a 40th birthday party for instance not a party to "mark the start of our 41st year""
A new born baby can be described as "0 years old". Therefore a child of 10 has completed his first decade. As Fr Hunwicke took care to point out there never was a "0 AD". Therefore the second decade of the twenty-first century will not be completed until the end of 2020.

William Tighe said...

Fr. Hunwicke is correct about this. I recall, though, from back in 1998 and 1999 when I often mentioned to students in my various classes how one thing, at least, that they might carry away from it is that the "new century" or "new millennium" would not begin until January 1, 2001 and NOT on January 1, 2000, how many of them seemed incapable of understanding that "there was no year 0" and drawing the obvious conclusion from the fact that the day after December 31, 1 BC is January 1, 1 AD, even when I would have tediously detailed recourse to "crates of apples," and how the last apple in a "century of apples" in a crate box would be number 100, and the first one in the next box would be number 101. I read somewhere, decades ago, that Kaiser William II was obsessed with the same idea as the year 1900 approached, and tried to ban any official celebrations in Germany of "the arrival of the twentieth century" on January 1, 1900 without much success.

Titus said...

I respectfully dissent. Father is, of course, entirely correct about the way the calendar works, and consequently about the total number of years that have elapsed. But we do not use "the decade" or "the century" to mean "the absolutely accurate nth set of 10 [or 100] years since A.D. 1."

Rather, "the decade" and "the century" are logical groupings of numerically related years. They are primarily cultural references, not mathematical ones.

So while everyone agrees that it is mathematically correct that there will not have been 202 complete sets of ten years of Our Lord until January 1, 2021, that is not the end of the story. This is so largely because it is incoherent to lump 2020 in with the years 201n for purposes of social, cultural, and historical reference. That is the decade to which people refer, this discrete set of ten years, apart from the acknowledged fact that there is an "incomplete set" back at the beginning.

Grant Milburn said...

Yes Colin,the roaring twenties are back! Get in your flivver and join the bright young things at their party....

Greyman 82 said...

Father, may I point out the year after 1 B.C. was not "1 A.D." but "A.D. 1"? "One the year of Our Lord" doesn't make sense: "The year of Our Lord One" and "The year of our Lord Twenty Twenty" do.

Peter said...

This chestnut crops us every ten years or is it every 11 years?! I think Titus hits the nail on the head when he correctly points out that decades are cultural references eg we talk about the sixties or the seventies etc.