Happy new decade, everyone! This month, January 2020, marks the start of a new decade, the 2020’s. And for those of you who are saying, “no, strictly speaking the decade doesn’t begin until 2021″, you are wrong. Or, at least, all of us who say that decades and centuries start on round numbers are just as “strictly speaking” right as you. Here is why.

I think we all agree that a “decade” generally means a 10-year time span, and a “century” means a 100-year time span. In everyday usage, the word “decade” means a time interval which starts on a year ending in “0″, and ends on a year ending in “9″. Thus we have just finished the “2010’s” (10 years from the start of 2010 to the end of 2019), and are entering the “2020’s” (2020–2029). By the same token, every-day use of the time unit “century” means a time interval which starts on a year ending in “00″ and ends on a year ending in “99″. The previous century is known as the “1900’s”, and also as the “20th century”.

And all of the above only applies to English usage of North America, when using the current standard Gregorian Calendar. It is also limited to year 1 onwards — the Common Era (earlier labelled as Anno Domini or A.D. by Bede back in the 600’s and 700’s).
The pedants will point to the first year of the Common Era, which is year 1 rather than year 0. They argue that the first decade must begin with year 1 and be 10 years long, so it must end on year 10. Count forward in 10-year increments, and the 2020’s must start with the year 2021 and end with the year 2030. Similarly, the pedants argue that the first century must begin with year 1 and be 100 years long, so it must end on year 100. Note that the entire foundation of their pedantry is that the time unit “decade” must always and only be 10 years long, and “century” must always and only be 100 years long.

I believe that where the pedants go astray is to prize a constant length over a convenient starting point for “decade” and “century”.

Decades, and calendars, are social constructs. They don’t have to abide by strict mathematics, and they don’t. There is a value to having a calendar which matches the earth’s rotation around the sun. There is value to having a calendar which adjusts to seasonal changes in sunrise and sunset. And, there is value to having a calendar which matches common and convenient language usage.

Consider the day: normally it is 24 hours long. But when “springing forward” from Standard to Daylight Saving Time, there is a day which is 23 hours long. Later in the year, when “falling back” to Standard Time, there is a day which is 25 hours long. I have had to write software which handled this variation. A day is normally 24 hours, but can be 23 or 25 hours.

Consider the minute: normally it is 60 seconds long. But when a leap second is necessary — to keep the highly-accurate Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in sync with the Earth’s variable orbital duration, and to keep the March equinox close to March 20 — the minute containing the leap second is 61 seconds long.

Some years are 365 days long, others are 366 days long, because of leap years.

Britain officially started its civil year on 25 March, until as late as 1751. Only in 1752 did it finally change the start of the civil year to 1 January. Common usage was ahead of civil rules in adopting 1 January as the beginning of the year, leading dates from 1 January to 24 March to be written with two alternative years: “30 January 1648/1649″.  Even more interestingly, September 1752 was 19 days long in England, instead of 30 days as in other years. This was to bring the calendar back in sync with the solar year, or in other words, to move March 20 back to the day of the March equinox.

All these calendar shenanigans are about deciding to allow social (and astronomical) considerations take precedence over strictly consistent numerical duration. “Strictly speaking”, a calendar balances all these considerations. And rightly so.

Given that, I think it is perfectly reasonable to declare: decades are normally 10 years long, but the first decade of the Common Era was 9 years long: 1 to 9 CE. 10 CE began the second decade. Centuries are normally 100 years long, but the first century CD was 99 years long: 1 to 99 CE.

Thus, 1 Jan 2020 CE also began a decade. Pedants, I see where you are coming from, but if you are willing to use a calendar with 25-hour days, and a 19-day September back in the day, I claim you cannot justify denying the 9-year decade and the 99-year century.

I am tempted to find a time machine, go back to northeast England in the 7th or 8th centuries CE, and persuade Bede to define his Anno Domini year numbers at 0, instead of 1. It would sidestep this whole decade and century problem. The only problem is, that in Bede’s time, Europe would not learn of the zero for another 3-5 centuries (where “centuries” are not strict 100-year time durations).

Happy new decade, starting January 2020!