A question of Maths or English: why do some time-periods cause confusion?

Early years

Children in Primary School have few problems counting in 10s.
10, 20, 30 …

Or 100s: 100, 200, 300, …

Or 1000s: 1000, 2000, 3000, …

Yep. They have that skill sewn up as soon as they recognise that there’s a pattern.

So why does such a familiar pattern become seemingly incomprehensible when we start referring to some passages of time?

To explain

The first time I became aware of this problem of terminology was in 1999. Around the world there was a palpable buzz in the air, excitement, momentous planning afoot. Why? Because the following year was the beginning of a new millennium. We were on the threshold of 2000, at the dawn of the next thousand years. Endless possibilities were beckoning.

I could not understand the excitement. Like not being in on a universal joke. Or being a minor character in The Emperor’s New Clothes story.

In my mind 2000 was not the first year of a new millennium but the final year of the passing millennium. I began to feel that I was the only one saying: ‘No it’s not. The second millennium begins in 2001.’

I did have a brief moment of vindication when I saw an episode of The X Files. Below is the exchange between Scully and Mulder:

SCULLY: Mulder, those people, even when they were alive mangled biblical prophecy to the extent that it’s unrecognizable. The year 2000 is just their artificial deadline and besides, 2001 is actually the start of the new millennium.

MULDER: Nobody likes a math geek, Scully.

Season 7, Episode Millennium

And now as 2020 is within our grasp I feel a similar sense of ‘No, it’s not the time to reflect on the passing of a decade. That will be 2021.’

Take away

The first 10 years of life is 1 – 10; the second is 11 – 20; and so on.
The first hundred years is 1 – 100; the second is 101 – 200; and so on.
The first thousand years is 1 – 1000; the second is 1001 – 2000; and so on.

According to Wikipedia the 20th century began on 1 January 1901 and ended on 31 December 2000. It was the final century of the second millennium. In other words the second millennium ended on 31 December 2000, and not 1999.

This is reiterated on the TimeandDate.com website: “Contrary to popular belief, the 21st century and the third millennium did not begin on January 1, 2000, but one year later, on New Year’s Day 2001.” It goes on to explain that there never was a year zero (at the cusp of BC and AD) because the Romans had no linguistic concept of ‘zero’.

And are we now at the end of a decade?

Well, yes we are.

Unlike centuries and millennia a ‘decade’ is a linguistic term for the passage of ten years. Any block of 10 years. It would be accurate for me to say that I taught for a decade in that I taught for 10 years beginning in 1987.
So ‘a decade’ can accurately describe the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, etc.

Wishing you a successful and contented 2020 / New Decade / Time of Reflection / Doorway to a Bright Future.

Happy New Year!
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
Happy Hogmanay!
🌍🌎🌏 🕛 😊