21st century still 12 months away

Millennium: An imperfect calendar and our sense of time have led to the confusion over Y2K's significance.

January 02, 2000|By John E. McIntyre

YOU PROBABLY thought this morning, as you finally shook off the effects of the champagne or crouched among your canned goods, that you were finally done with the millennium.

But, as Yogi Berra pointedly observed, "it ain't over till it's over." Even though many newspapers, including this one, have repeatedly run articles about the start of the millennium -- and The Sun even had one of those digital clocks in the lobby ticking off the seconds until the great event -- the 20th century and the second millennium A.D. still have 12 months to run.

How, you wonder sourly, have we come to this? There are several answers. Many journalists are not famously reliable with figures; if they had been good at math, they would have gone into something more lucrative. The often-repeated criticism that journalists are herd animals also carries weight: More than one editor here has been heard to remark, "If everyone else thinks it's the millennium, we should go along." This view got some support from specious reasoning in an article by Dick Teresi in the Atlantic Monthly in 1997.

But the fundamental source of confusion is that our calendar is jury-rigged and imperfect, and human beings are, for all our scientific advances, determinedly earthbound and local, and time itself is largely relative.

Consider that in 45 B.C., Julius Caesar added 80 days to the Roman calendar to remedy its misalignment. This gave the world the more nearly reliable Julian calendar.

Consider that in Roman Catholic Europe, the dates Oct. 5-14, 1582, never happened; they were eliminated by Pope Gregory XIII to bring the Julian calendar into alignment with the seasons. Britain, ever suspicious of popish innovations, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. So in Britain and its colonies, the dates Sept. 3-13, 1752, never happened.

Consider the perspective of the astronauts if they were to be in the space shuttle on Dec. 31, 2000. From space, the Earth is all of a piece, and it would be nonsense to think of an event occurring there over a span of hours. (If Armageddon comes, will it occur by time zones?) But even the astronauts follow the hours of the day set by an arbitrary time on Earth. We may measure the seconds, days, weeks, months and years by the oscillations of radioactive cesium, but our sense of time is still as earthbound as when our ancestors measured the days by sunrise and sunset.

Consider that when Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian abbot, went to work on the calendar in A.D. 525, he started the calendar with the year 1. The concept of zero had not yet percolated to Western Europe from India. So the first century ran from years 1 to 100, as have all centuries since by this reckoning. If someone was born in 1900, he didn't get 100 candles on his birthday cake in 1999. He got 99, because it takes 100 years to make a century or a centenarian.

Until someone with authority commensurate with Julius Caesar's or Pope Gregory XIII's reforms the calendar again, that is how centuries and millenniums will be counted.

While we're addressing misapprehensions, some minor points are worth considering:

* The abbreviation "B.C.," for "Before Christ," follows the year. The abbreviation "A.D.," for "Anno Domini," "in the Year of the Lord," precedes the year. Over the past couple of decades, new abbreviations, "C.E." for "Common Era" and "B.C.E." for "Before Common Era," have come into use as a substitute for the Christian abbreviations. While they're increasingly common in academic writing, they have not yet passed into general use.

* People who were expecting great things of the millennium presumably expected it to occur on the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, but Dionysius Exiguus got that date wrong. Scholars place the birth of Jesus at somewhere between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C., not in A.D. 1. So the millennium by that reckoning has already occurred, sometime in the 1994-1997 range.

* The lack of a Year Zero throws off the calculation of time between B.C. and A.D. dates. The span from 5 B.C. to A.D. 5 is not 10 years but nine. You can count it on your fingers.

However you want to count it, whether you are in this millennium or the next, we have at least successfully negotiated The Switch from the Digits Beginning with 19 to the Digits Beginning with 20. Hurrah.

John E. McIntyre, the chief of The Sun's copy desk, recommends David Ewing Duncan's excellent "Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year" for readers interested in further exploration of this subject.

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