The internet is self-policing and lousy with pedants. Every time someone tweets about 2020 being the start of a new decade, a voice will rise up from the digital depths and confidently declare, “actually, the new decade starts in 2021, actually.”
These voices love to explain that this is because there was no year 0 CE, so the first decade ran from 1–10 CE, then second ran from 11–20 CE, and so on.
Which always makes me think of this Futurama gag:
Technically correct is annoying. Technically correct is also, more importantly, a particular way of being wrong. Decade pedants are only correct when you apply a set of rules that are dubious at best.
What is a decade?
The word “decade” simply means a group of ten things. In mathematics, a decade is a ratio of 10:1; in Catholicism, a decade is ten Hail Marys.
If we’re going to be strictly technical about this, then a decade is any period of exactly ten years. This moment, right now, is technically the end of one decade and the start of another. So is this moment. And this one.
Pedants would reply by pointing out that calendar decades, as commonly understood, run consecutive to each other with no overlap. This is the same argument that pedants were trotting out on January 1st, 2000, when they said that we still had another 12 months to go until the new Millennium.
The pedantic argument is stronger when talking about millennia and centuries (although I still disagree). We do talk about these units of time in relational terms: this is the 21st century, which emerged from the ashes of the 20th century, which itself was born of the 19th century.
These ordinal terms place the centuries in relation to each other. The 21st century must exist after the 20th century, and so on back to the 1st century.
However, we don’t refer to the decades with ordinal numbers. Nobody calls this the 202nd decade. Even pedants don’t call this the 201st decade.
Therefore, there’s no real imperative to organize the decades relative to each other. The existence of the 50s doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the 40s.
Instead, the way we generally organize decades is more to do with the numerical quality of the year itself. If it’s got an 80 in it, it’s the 80s; if it’s got a 90, it’s the 90s. To put that into something that looks like a formula, you get:
[n]0’s = 20[n]0 to 20[n]9
Yes, this definition implies that the first decade of the common era was only 9 years long. But when you go back that far, you’re looking at a time that was especially unfriendly to pedants.
What happened before the Year Zero?
Whether we say BC and AD, or BCE and CE, we’re always referring to an event that happened around 2000 years ago: the birth of Christ.
Or are we?
In a pedant-friendly calendar, Jesus would have been born at exactly midnight on January 1st, 1 CE.
Except he wasn’t. Not even close.
First of all, the birth of Christ is generally celebrated by Christians on December 25th — a full week before the New Year. Even then, most Biblical scholars reckon that he was probably born somewhere closer to March, or maybe October, although nobody knows for sure.
But that’s a small detail. What about the year?
Well, that’s a subject of debate too. There’s some objectively verifiable data in the Bible, such as the reign of King Herod, which would put Jesus’ birth at around 3 BCE to 6 BCE.
How could Christ have been born 6 years Before Christ? Blame it on 6th Century monk Dionysius Exiguus, who did some back-of-an-envelope calculations, picked a random year, and bequeathed us a Calendar system that perseveres today.
(More or less — the later switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar confuses matters even more.)
Whether you believe in Jesus or not, it still means the same thing: this year is the 2020th anniversary of nothing in particular.
1 BCE was not a noteworthy year; neither was 1 CE. This year is the 2020th anniversary of nothing.
The point is that 1 BCE, 1 CE and the missing Year Zero might feel like objective landmarks in history, but they’re really not. There’s no reason to measure precisely our way back to an arbitrary point.
Decades are a cultural idea
Did people in the 1580s make fun of fashions from the 1570s? If you lived in 730 CE, would you pine for the great music of the 710s?
People in Ye Olden Dayes had different ways of measuring the passage of historical time. Often, this would be done in relation to major events, such as “the fifth year of the reign of King Bob” or “twenty years since the river flooded.” Even in Medieval times, most ordinary folk didn’t know which calendar year they occupied.
In modern times, we have a very strong sense of where we are in history. Each decade has its own flavor, its own identity, defined by culture, fashion, social attitudes and major historical events. This new decade is already in a dialog with its 20th-century ancestor, the Roaring 20s.
In a modern sense, this is perhaps the real definition of a decade. Not a precise period of exactly 3650 days (plus leap days), but a cohesive period of cultural history.
My favorite decade was the 90s. I love the style, the attitude, the movies, and especially the music. But it’s ridiculous to me to say that the 90s started exactly on January 1st, 1990 or 1991. For me, the 90s started when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released and ended on 9/11.
Others might choose different start and endpoints for the decade. The fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, definitely felt like the end of a significant period of time.
It’s the same as arguing about who exactly is a Millennial and who is Generation X. There’s no definitive answer. Instead, the discussion reveals a lot about who we are and how we relate to our history.
The 2010s will be remembered, I think, as a time of cultural confusion when whole societies were questioning their identity. The 2020s will really begin when that conversation moves on to the next stage.
Happy new year, pedants
2020 is as good a place as any to celebrate the start of a new decade.
You don’t have to celebrate if you don’t want to. But if you insist that everyone wait until the end of this year, then be aware that you’re on very shaky ground. You’re using a very strict definition of the word decade to celebrate the anniversary of nothing.
And history will probably come and rewrite it all anyway. We won’t really know when the 20s started until long after it’s over.