A new decade?

Lord Norton

The other evening the presenter of a Radio 4 programme, reviewing the year, stated that 2010 was the start of a new decade.  The same programme claimed that Michael Martin was the first Speaker in three-hundred years to be forced out of office.  Wrong on the second count (as regular readers will be well aware) and, officially, wrong on the first as well.  The new decade starts 0n 1 January 2011, just as the new Millennium started on 1 January 2001.

The Victorians celebrated the start of the twentieth century on 1 January 1901.  On 31 December 1900, The Daily Telegraph published an article on ‘The Departing Century’ by Sir Edwin Arnold.  Christmas 1900 was referred to ‘as the last of the century’.  Fast forward to 1999.  I tabled a question to ask the Goverment why the new Millennium was officially being celebrated a year early.  In response, Lord  McIntosh of Haringey conceded that the Government accepted that the new Millennium started on 1 January 2001.  However, he said, ‘many people wish to celebrate during the year 2000’.  Consequently, it was decided in 1994 that the Millennium Commission would fund projects throughout 2000 ‘and into the new Millennium’.  This all appears to be a case of having one’s cake and eating it.  As The Daily Telegraph observed, the Home Office had allocated an additional bank holiday for 31 December 1999 ‘in recognition of the celebratory nature of the Millennium’. 

As The Daily Telegraph went on to record – having done a story on the basis of my question (and providing the historical references) – ‘The problem over dating the Millennium arose because early monks who established the system of Anno Domini did not include a year 0.  However, the historical date of Christ’s birth is put by most scholars ar 4 BC, which means the real Millennium probably fell in 1996.’

The article also went on to point out that the brass ‘prime meridian’ line at Greenwich, which was to feature in the celebrations, was actually 1o0 metres away from zero longtitude as measured by global satellites, as a result of which the start of the new year could be out by one-third of a second.  It was thus able to conclude that  ‘It could be argued that the Third Millennium is to be celebrated at Greenwich on the wrong meridian at the wrong time and in the wrong year.’ 

Still, we got the Dome.

25 comments for “A new decade?

  1. Nick
    29/12/2009 at 4:11 pm

    And the debts to pay for the Dome.

  2. 29/12/2009 at 4:29 pm

    The Greenwich Meridian might be 100 (actually 102.5) metres away from the WGS84 GPS meridian, but it’s still correct – there’s more than one longitude 🙂 It marks the zero longitude for the Airy ellipsoid, which is the one used for e.g. the Ordnance Survey grid reference system. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prime_Meridian#IERS_Reference_Meridian has more information.

    As the earth is constantly rotating, midnight is at a different actual time at all different longitudes, so you might as well just go on what the time is officially set down to be for the location you are in. I was about to write the UK’s national time reference NPL signal came from Rugby, but I just checked and it moved to near Anthorn in Cumbria in 2007. It was in Rugby at the time of whichever millennium date you want to celebrate 🙂

  3. 29/12/2009 at 6:04 pm

    There is a big difference between the dating systems that matter to academics for various reasons, and the dating systems that matter to the general public who desire to go out and drink too much booze.

  4. 29/12/2009 at 6:16 pm

    Matthew: the Rugby/Anthorn time signal still broadcasts UTC, not local time in Rugby, so being in Rugby offers little advantage. Although, living around 300 miles from Anthorn, I do wonder if my watch is 1/1000 second slow…

    Lord Norton, you are right that there wasn’t a year 0, so the third millennium AD started with year 2001. However, a decade or century can be any period of 10 or 100 years, so I don’t see what’s wrong with celebrating the end of the “noughties”, which is the decade starting in 2000 and ending in 2009. If you like, in three years time we can celebrate the decade from 2003 to 2012. Most people are more interested when the most digits change in the numerical date, not in a historical event that’s almost certainly at the wrong date, if it happened at all.

  5. 29/12/2009 at 6:29 pm

    I think the shift is down to the actual number itself being more significant in public perception than what it symbolises. It simply seems more ‘natural’ to draw the line at the moment the date becomes a nice round number, in much the same way that anniversaries of many sorts are more notably celebrated at multiples of 5 or 10.

  6. Carl Holbrough
    30/12/2009 at 10:52 am

    Being as the Calendar has been altered several times over the 2000 years, originally the start of the year was in March, does anyone really know for definite ?


    Anyway all this 365 days, 24 hours business is not in keeping with the great European Metric and is obviously more difficult for children to learn than a 10 day week and a 1000 day year.

  7. Gar Hywel
    30/12/2009 at 10:56 am

    dating systems that matter to the general public who desire to go out and drink too much booze. Both?

    I have a slightly different gripe from the noble lord, and that is Christmas.

    How is it that seasons/solstices/equinox of the year have been hijacked by personalities?

    It is Saturnalia! I may say (I hope) that the implication that HM is descended from JC
    thanks to the annual Xmas message takes the Cake!

    Now on to May Day! That is a real political day! The red flag ‘n orl!

  8. Gareth Howell
    31/12/2009 at 10:37 am

    Religious commentary expresses surprise that “pagan practices” survived for centuries along side the Christian faith. When you examine the significance of the pagan practices it is not.

    I gave up on the newspapers about 30 years ago, on the basis of the ignorance, often calculated, of those who wrote the stories. Radio 4 is no different. They live in, what can only be described as, a “news warp” where
    reality is entirely divorced from the truth and fact. They would have no business left to do if they did stick to the facts.

    I find the news I want to know about these days, by searching for it on the internet; local or international; it’s all here.

    What do they do with the Dome at the moment?
    Like the South Bank itself,(RFH+QEH) it might come in to its own, 40 years after development!

  9. lordnorton
    31/12/2009 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I should admit that I don’t have a strong view on the issue. My principal concern was the apparent muddle as to when the new Millennium should be celebrated officially. People can choose to celebrate whenever they wish and, as Jonathan touches upon, one could celebrate any period of ten years (or a century). If people wish to celebrate the end of the ‘noughties’ that’s up to them. I shall be celebrating this New Year the same as I shall be celebrating the start of 2011 and indeed how I celebrated the start of the new Millennium, be it the official one or the popular one – at home, quietly. By far the best place to be.

    • 31/12/2009 at 6:51 pm

      Now if we can only come up with a suitable name for the next decade. I have no desire to live through the teens again!

      • lordnorton
        31/12/2009 at 8:02 pm

        Alex Bennee: I don’t know. It may have its merits. Some of us may be heading for our second childhoods.

      • 31/12/2009 at 8:51 pm

        I remember once on the venerable quiz show Fifteen to One a contestant was asked in which decade of the 20th century certain events had occurred. He replied “The nineteen tens”. His answer was allowed, but William G Stewart corrected him disdainfully, “The second decade”.

  10. Carl Holbrough
    31/12/2009 at 6:28 pm

    “At home, quietly. By far the best place to be.”

    I`ll second that. Happy New Year to all.

    01/01/2010 at 1:32 pm

    The (wrong) public perception about the date of the Millenium and the second decade may have a lot to do with our woeful education system.

    • 02/01/2010 at 1:54 am

      Or it may be to do with the fact that, really, it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

      Counting the calendar from 1 rather than 0 is a bit of esoterica which is of principle concern to historians, pedants and those who wish to do well at pub quizzes. Given as most of the public were not alive when the calendar rolled over from BC to BCE, to us what seems significant is the rolling over from one column to the next, of changing from 200X to 201X.

      This also makes sense given our preferred way of referring to historical decades. One suspects that some pedants would insist that the year 1970 is part of the sixties – this is just confusing and would not be considered a reasonable use of the language by anyone who believes language exists to convey meaning rather than as a system of codes to declare status.

      I have rather more concern with the educational status of people who choose to be pompous about arbitrary and meaningless dates than those who use the most obvious meaning as an excuse to have a good time. You are aware, Mr Hughes, aren’t you, that the turning over of the new decade is not a real event, and that the calendar is simply a convenient standard fiction? We could declare the new year on the 78th of Migglesworth if we wanted to. I would consider roundly educated people to be aware of this.

      • Carl Holbrough
        02/01/2010 at 7:17 pm

        I am more concerned that personal slights are creeping onto this blog and will cause animosity.

        If dates are meaningless and arbitrary, history is worthless and law inapplicable. Of course one could take the philosophy further to state all life and numbers are meaningless except to individual humans who actually count for little in this great Universe, et al.

        Of Course the year 2000 was also 4637 or 4698 depending whose counting system you used. Now you give me 240 pennies and I`ll give you a pound.

        Being pompous, is surely, stating no one else`s view is correct except yours and doubting the others educational status based on solitary opinion.

  12. Gar Hywel
    01/01/2010 at 6:32 pm

    I wish I had known it was the noughties!

    I would have made more use of them.
    Still Noble lords have their uses, and may not be senile, only on account of reminding that there is another year to go in which to be….so.


  13. 03/01/2010 at 1:50 am

    Mr Holbrough

    Absolutely. Which is why I found the opinion that not only should everyone agree that the decade should begin on 1/1/2011, but that failure of the general public to agree this is the case must be traced to a “woeful public education system” to be, indeed, pretty damned pompous.

    One can celebrate the new decade now, or next year, or indeed both, should one desire. If you hark from East Asia you might well be celebrating a new decade on January 15 on 2014. The point being that it doesn’t matter, and that people with a wide and broad education would, indeed, be well aware of the arbitrary nature of the calendar, and would take its little quirks and idiosyncrasies as idle diversions and intellectual curiosities – as I understand Lord Norton to be doing here – rather than a damning indictment of the educational system or, indeed, some method by which all history and law is rendered undone.

    I mean, really sir. All history meaningless and law inapplicable? I refer you to Michael Berube’s satirical post in which he argues that the Louisiana Purchase be rendered void because it was signed in Paris on the tenth day of Floreal. The law is remarkably resilient when it comes to anachronistic calendars, which is why France has not recently come into possession of 40% of the North American mainland. And history, of course, remains steadfastly in the state of having happened.

    People do take such umbrage, don’t they?

    • Carl Holbrough
      03/01/2010 at 4:31 pm

      Unbrage ? Certainly Sir, when such name calling is bought into debate.

      Technically and factually Mr.Hughes is correct about the Millennium and the start of the decade. There is nothing at all pompous about stating that 1999 does not at all equal 2000.

      I actually agree with your sentiment but not your aggressive tone which has been prevelent in a lot of your posts.

      If Dates are meaningless as you stated it makes history worthless. If one can prove in a Court of Law that at the time of an offence no law existed to try someone it makes law inapplicable. If you read the article you`d note the last line reads:

      “Done at Paris the tenth day of Floreal in the eleventh year of the French Republic; and the 30th of April 1803”.

      Which includes a date other than 10th Floreal. Besides which when have you ever known a Government to stick to a Treaty when it`s not in their interest ?

      Mr.Hughes may well have gone a little too far in the generalisation of attacking our education system in such circunstances. However attacking Mr. Hughes in such a personal way seems far more suited to the House of Commons than here.

      • 07/01/2010 at 7:04 pm

        When ornithologists hear a particular kind of quacking sound coming from the bushes near a pond, they generally draw certain conclusions about the existence of ducks, especially if there are webbed footprints all around.

        Do you believe, Mr Holbrough, that such ornithologists should stick to a null hypothesis that quacking sounds and webbed footprints can be created ex nihilo from bushes and pond mud without any ducks being present?

  14. David
    03/01/2010 at 12:09 pm

    The year 2001 to 2010 could be called “the 201st decade”, using ordinal numbers and the Gregorian calendar and it’s ‘year one’, but no one does that. No one counts decades as x1 through 11. We do not use the Gregorian ‘year one’ when we count ‘common decades’ (60s, 80s etc), and no one refers to the period of 1961 to 1970 as “The 196th decade”.

    We call the years 1960 to 1969 “The decade of the Sixties”, or “The decade of the nineteen sixties”. The years 2010 to 2019 will be called the “Twenty Tens”, the years 2020 to 2029 are “The Twenty Twenties” etc. This is not debatable! You cannot refer to the years 2021 to 2030 as “The Twenty Twenties”, in the same way that you cannot refer to someone’s life between 21 and 30 as their “Twenties”, the correct spans are the years 2020 to 2029, and ages 20 to 29.

    This is by far the most common and implicitly understood usage of the word ‘decade’. There doesn’t need to be any reference to ‘the start of time’ or whatever, each of these decades stands on it’s own.

    Further, there isn’t that much that is simple about the Gregorian calendars start date, and certainly not logical. It’s not even correct when it comes to the birth of Christ!

    The Gregorian calendar is superseded by ISO 8601, which is a modern, logical, and scientific approach to dates and times, and also happens to be the one that tallies with “the man on the street’s common sense”. This has year 0AD (same year as 1BC), so there isn’t even any argument regarding centuries or decades either, they all turn when the significant digit changes. This is the system I use, and it seems to be the system that everyone else has “voted” (with their feet) to use as well (even if they don’t realise it) (witness the 2000 celebrations versus the year 2001 celebrations).

    I have seen this ‘not the turn of the decade’ argument quite a bit on the internet, but I find it strange that the people arguing that decades run from x1 to 11 haven’t either qualified their statement, nor researched obvious patterns of use and dictionary definitions.

    Finally, I believe we must turn our backs on pedantic complications whenever possible, and certainty when such complications fly in the face of both modern international standards, and common understanding.

    The Gregorian calender is dead, long live ISO 8601!

  15. Carl.H
    08/01/2010 at 1:24 pm

    “When ornithologists hear a particular kind of quacking sound………”

    I think if the ornithologist believes a duck is posting on the Lords blog, he should listen to what he has to say and ignore the fact he maybe a duck. After all duckism is probably covered in the law somewhere.

    The ornithologist being wiser and seeing fault in the ducks argument will obviously educate said duck without lowering himself to duckism. Of course if the debate is only opinion, then all sides are valid are they not ?


Comments are closed.