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End of the Decade, Perhaps


What keeps Mike Potemra awake at night? The Ditty Bops, judging from this graveyard-shift Corner item. Mike’s post makes reference to “decade’s end,” and in combination with his previous one, in which he discusses being of a certain age, it reminds me that I am about to undergo my fifth experience with a fierce debate that has plagued philosophers for centuries: When does a decade end?


Back in December 1969, I was barely old enough to follow with bewilderment the back-and-forth on the New York Times letters page over whether the decade (a) was about to end or (b) would not be over until the end of 1970. In a reaction that the Times letters page has elicited many times since, I couldn’t understand why grown-ups were getting so worked up over such a trivial thing.


We all know the basis of the dispute. The 1-to-0 crowd says that under the calendar we have imposed retroactively, the first decade A.D. begins with the year 1 (regardless of when Christ was actually born), and therefore we must continue the same pattern. Thus, every decade starts with a 1 year and ends with a 0 year. Under this system Mike is jumping the gun, because the current decade won’t be over until the end of 2010.


The 0-to-9 crowd responds that we usually refer to decades as “the fifties,” “the sixties,” and so forth. Since the 1960s (considered as a calendar decade, not a cultural/political epoch) began at the start of 1960 and finished at the end of 1969, and since it makes no sense to have “the 1960s” and “the decade” offset from each other by a year, for the sake of consistency, we should adopt a uniform 0-to-9 convention.


As I wrote here years ago (scroll down to the shaded area), this controversy has been raging in the American press at least since John Adams was president, and was vigorously renewed in McKinley’s day (for what it’s worth, Pope Leo XIII endorsed the 1-to-0 interpretation). 0-to-9 proponents sometimes concede that the decade “technically” or “officially” begins with a 1 year, but in my view, unless you accept Leo XIII’s authority, there’s no “technically” or “officially” about it. A decade begins or ends whenever you want it to, and one system is as right or wrong as another.


I realize that, as somebody who makes a living moving commas around, I sound silly accusing anyone else of being pedantic, and I may come across as a professional fusspot trying to shoo away the amateurs. But I do believe the two camps can be reconciled. Consider this: The lengths of a day and a year might seem to be unalterably fixed by nature, but in fact they are not. Every year we have one day of 25 hours and one of 23, and every fourth year is one day longer than the rest (not to mention 1752, which had only 355 days, and 1751, which in England had just 282).


So if the length of a day, a month, and a year can vary, why not the length of a decade? Why not define the first decade A.D. to be nine years long, ending in the year 9, and follow the natural 0-to-9 pattern from then on? That way, both sides can have their cake and eat it too, and the other side’s cake as well.


Many problems large and small could be resolved as easily as this one — if each side would only admit that the matter is open to debate, and deny itself the pleasure of correcting the other side. But as we have seen repeatedly, on questions much more important than this, that’s a mighty big if.


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