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When will the century end?

by David Stevenson



There are people going to celebrate the end of the century with a party on 31/12/1999 and others on 31/12/2000. Which is correct?

Probably a lot are going to parties on both! In fact any period of 100 years is a century. 1897 to 1996 is a century, and a new century starts on the 1st of January every year. Similarly 1997 to 2996 is a new millennium. But these are not useful, and people have named some decades, centuries and millennia. Strangely, they have named the centuries and millennia differently from the decades.

Despite changes in the past our calendar is now calculated from a specific date when something may [or may not have happened]. That date is the 1st of January, year 1: there was no year nought! So the "first" century was years 1 to 100, the second 101 to 200, ... the twentieth century is 1901 to 2000 and the twenty-first century will be 2001 to 2100. Similarly the first millennium was 1 to 1000, the second is 1001 to 2000, and the third will be 2001 to 3000.

However, decades are different. We refer to the nineties [short for nineteen-nineties]: these are 1990 to 1999. If we used the equivalent names to centuries, then we would call the current decade the "two hundredth" decade, which is 1991 to 2000. Remember, there was no year nought.

If we called the century the nineteen hundreds then it would end on 31/12/1999: but we don't, and the twentieth century and the second millennium end on 31/12/2000. Have fun at both your parties!


Rebecca added:
Thanks to the fact that the Romans didn't comprehend zero as a number, we went from 1 BC to 1 AD. There is no year zero. Thus, the first century is from 1 AD to 100 AD, the second century is from 101 AD to 200 AD, etc. Extrapolating, the nineteenth century is from 1901 to 2000. And the first year of the Third Millenium is 2001. (The first millenium started 1 AD, the second started at 1001.)

This is simple irrefutable fact. The ONLY way that 2000 could be the start of a millenium is if there were a year 0, or only 999 years in a millenium.

Now, as far as I can tell, this date is also entirely arbitrary, since for quite some time the new year started in spring, Jesus was probably born in 4 BC, and at some point we got rid of 10 days to get the calendar back in sync with the solstices and equinoxes. So celebrate if you want... but to me, the changing of the year has never been that big of a deal. It just makes me think about how mankind tries to give meaning to things that really don't have any intrinsic meaning. (Now, if we started a the new year on something like an equinox, then I would pay more attention to it.).


The United States Naval Observatory [the USA's official time keeper] said:
"While 2000 is often considered the Millennium year, the new Millennium doesn't start until January 1, 2001."


Editor's note:

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