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This discussion arose (well, for me at least) when I was confronted with one of the definitions used for defining centuries. This definition is relevant for defining community tags on specific centuries.

The two different viewpoints

The two viewpoints are very concisely set out on this Wikipedia page

I will briefly point out the differences:

View point 1: Strict usage, the first century started in 1 AD, therefore every century starts in '01 and ends at the end of '00

View point 2: Usage as defined in ISO 8601, which defines centuries as starting in '00 and ending at the end of '99

I am asking for community opinions on which definition should be followed within the ELU community. An example which would depend on this definition is the excerpt for tags relating to centuries, e.g. the 20th-century-language tag. Should this be stated as 1901-2000 or 1900-1999?

My viewpoint

I would argue to follow the ISO 8601 standard. That way, decades are associated with centuries, so the first decade of this millennium (2000-2009) is entirely in the 21-st century, rather than being split over the 20th and 21st.

I would also like to point out that ISO 8601 is not just something programmers use, to that end I am citing the Oxford Living Dictionary, which acknowledges the use of ISO 8601 in practice:

Strictly speaking, centuries run from 01 to 100, meaning that the new century begins on the first day of the year 01 (i.e. 1 January 1901, 1 January 2001, etc.).

In practice and in popular perception, however, the new century is held to begin when the significant digits in the date change, e.g. on 1 January 2000, when 1999 became 2000. Since the 1st century ran from the year 1 to the year 100, the ordinal number (i.e. second, third, fourth, etc.) used to denote the century will always be one digit higher than the corresponding cardinal digit(s). Thus, 1066 is a date in the 11th century, 1542 is a date in the 16th century, and so on

I would like to end with a quote from one of the more experienced users, because I think it is something that should be held in high regard, deciding democratically on one's own consensus:

"Due to the deliberately democratic philosophy behind Stack Exchange, a lot of the 'rules' are decided by community consensus. This is done in Meta. Even your post all rules in one place might become a 'rule' itself one day." -Lawrence

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    We could always duck the issue, and change "20th century" to "1900s" which could legitimately run from 1900-1999. English didn't exist in the year 1, so we don't really need to worry about a tag for the years 1-99. It also neatly sidesteps the whole "why is 1950 in the 20th century?" question. (Of course, then we'd have to worry about the apostrophe-or-no-apostrophe issue.) – 1006a Mar 17 '18 at 22:16
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    Billions of people around the world celebrated the beginning of a new millennium as the clock struck its twelfth note and the time read 00:00 2000. Later, a few people argued that the new century had not yet begun, Personally, I go with the majority on this one. – Nigel J Mar 18 '18 at 9:11
  • @JJJ Not to be too picky, but my comment allows for time-zones :) – Nigel J Mar 18 '18 at 9:17
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    Please don't edit your question to include answers. Your question should state a point of view (so that it can be voted on) and answers should state their own point of view (so that they can be voted on). You are deliberately subverting that system. – Andrew Leach Mar 18 '18 at 9:17
  • Imagine suggesting that one should pretend that a man “in the summer of his twenty-seventh year” last celebrated turning 27 years old instead of 26. We’d be attempting to cement a fencepost error into law. – tchrist Mar 18 '18 at 14:36
  • A suggestion to those who posted comments here: as you can see it is a deep and wide debate. Since our @1006a has already suggested the clever compromise of saying "the 1900's" "the 2000's" etc to bypass avoidable paradox, we can easily choose to use that terminology here. – English Student Mar 18 '18 at 17:57
  • I've downvoted the question as a proxy for downvoting the answer embedded in it. A better way to get clear votes on your proposal would be to move your answer to an answer post. – MetaEd Mar 19 '18 at 14:23
  • Wait... is this an actual problem? – Mitch Mar 22 '18 at 13:24
  • @JJJ OK. But a feature request? What software feature on SE uses terms like 'century'? If you're just talking about behavior, I don't think you can legislate word use behavior on ELU. – Mitch Mar 22 '18 at 15:03
  • @JJJ Ohhhhh...I get it. You should totally edit your question then. "Suggestion to change tag labels from "20th c" to "1900's" or make these synonyms. Because you're not going to stop people from using 'Xth century' for the 'X-1' hundreds (because that's well-established usages, or to care about 'X00' (because that is a nit-picky thing that doesn't make a difference anyway). – Mitch Mar 22 '18 at 15:24
  • @JJJ Also ISO8601 is entirely irrelevant because it doesn't say anything about the word 'century'. – Mitch Mar 22 '18 at 15:25
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In the context of English, one year of resolution for a century is too fine a distinction. With history and English, we're talking about periods that don't correspond neatly to exact time periods. Is an author who started writing in 1890 but didn't get published until 1901 a 20th century author or a 19th century author? You could argue either way, because we're really interested in the environment that influenced their writing, not the actual time that it occurred.

So what good is limiting to a particular 100 year range? Was the language in 1899 significantly different from the language in 1901? Is the language in 2001 significantly different from 1999? Old English is considered to roughly go from the 7th century to mid 12th century - would a century tag corresponding to when my source was written be more useful than just ?

I think the tag should be ditched and replaced with . The description of is "late 15th century to the mid to late 17th century". I don't know if we need to distinguish the 18th and 19th centuries from "contemporary" English, but if we do, I think we should name the time period instead of using century names.

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    Good sensible compromise, which seems only women are capable of doing; we've had years of practice... Let's include 1900 in the tag definition and carry on with the rest of our lives. – Mari-Lou A Mar 18 '18 at 12:49
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    @Mari-LouA Actually, it was my husband who has helped me realize when I should step back an ask myself if the little detail I'm arguing over really matters :) My father and I are both engineers and there's nothing that we love better than to debate minutia, but it turns out that drives other people (like my husband) crazy. – ColleenV Mar 18 '18 at 13:16
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    I have no doubt that the language of Alexander Pope and Benjamin Franklin differed a bit from that of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, which in turn again differ from the language of FDR and JFK as those did from the language of teen girls in our own day. But like you I don't know that we benefit from splicing those up into different tags. – tchrist Mar 18 '18 at 15:14
  • Your 20th-century-language tag was created on 2014-07-25. It’s something of a curious partitioning as you've noted, and might perhaps be better folded into contemporary-english. Sometimes the terms "early" or "late" are added to OE or MidE or ModE to indicate the transitioning nature, but all these are still defined by the characteristics of the language at that point not by obsequious subservience to a particular calendar. In short, Early Modern English is not about the date but the language. – tchrist Mar 18 '18 at 15:15
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    @tchrist I missed the contemporary English tag - I've updated my answer to suggest we use that instead of creating a new tag. – ColleenV Mar 18 '18 at 15:16
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According to USNO

Years of the Gregorian calendar, which is currently in use today, are counted from AD 1. Thus, the 1st century comprised the years AD 1 through AD 100. The second century began with AD 101 and continued through AD 200. By extrapolation we find that the 20th century comprises the years AD 1901-2000. Therefore, the 21st century began with 1 January 2001 and will continue through 31 December 2100.

This is one of the sources referenced by Wikipedia. There was no year zero AD. Logically, the first 365 days period in "the year of our Lord" was completed a second after 11:59:59pm, 31/12/0001 so the first 2000 years were completed a second after 11:59:59pm, 31/12/2000. In short, it is not really a "democratic" matter of interpretation or ELU policy: 1/1/2001 was objectively the first day of the 21st century, and that is what we ought to follow here...

Unless this community comes to a consensus decision to follow not that technically correct interpretation of the Gregorian calendar, but

View point 2: Usage as defined in ISO 8601, which defines centuries as starting in '00 and ending at the end of '99

An excellent suggestion by a member:

Since our @1006a has already suggested the clever compromise of saying "the 1900's" "the 2000's" etc to bypass avoidable paradox, we can easily choose to use that terminology here.

  • You are very right but I hope you can see that we couldn't really be justified to create our own definition of things (such as what is the first day of the 21st century by the Gregorian calendar) that already have standard definitions @JJJ. However I have stated that the community can legitimately choose by consensus to adopt the ISO 8601 standard in this matter. – English Student Mar 18 '18 at 17:23
  • That's right, thanks for the interesting information @JJJ. Somebody already suggested the clever compromise of saying "the 1900's" "the 2000's" etc to bypass avoidable paradox. We can easily choose to use that terminology here. I now edited that into my answer. – English Student Mar 18 '18 at 17:50
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The twenty-first century started on 1 January 2001. 2000 was the last year of the twentieth century, just as 100 was the last year of the first century.

The hoo-hah over the major change from 1999 to 2000 was not a celebration of a new century, but rather the change from 19 to 20. The so-called "Millennium bug" was a factor in both the hoo-hah and a popular misconception that it's the first two digits which define the boundaries. It's true that ticking over from 1999 to 2000 seems a far greater change than from 2000 to 2001, but it simply means that you have entered the 2000th year; it doesn't mean that you have completed 2000 years or twenty centuries.

ISO 8601 is a standard form for data interchange. It doesn't define language. Indeed, it defines an entirely artificial Year Zero and has no specification of centuries anyway.

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I would argue to follow the ISO 8601 standard. That way, decades are associated with centuries, so the first decade of this millennium (2000-2009) is entirely in the 21-st century, rather than being split over the 20th and 21st.

I would also like to point out that ISO 8601 is not just something programmers use, to that end I am citing the Oxford Living Dictionary, which acknowledges the use of ISO 8601 in practice:

Strictly speaking, centuries run from 01 to 100, meaning that the new century begins on the first day of the year 01 (i.e. 1 January 1901, 1 January 2001, etc.).

In practice and in popular perception, however, the new century is held to begin when the significant digits in the date change, e.g. on 1 January 2000, when 1999 became 2000. Since the 1st century ran from the year 1 to the year 100, the ordinal number (i.e. second, third, fourth, etc.) used to denote the century will always be one digit higher than the corresponding cardinal digit(s). Thus, 1066 is a date in the 11th century, 1542 is a date in the 16th century, and so on

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    The timeline from Oxford Reference support the 20th century ending in 1999. On the other hand a Huffington Post 20th century timeline ends in 2000. So, it seems like either way would be fine (or either way could be wrong, depending on your perspective...) Maybe we should make it a BrE versus AmE thing ;) – ColleenV Mar 17 '18 at 22:11
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I would like to propose a new method which will happily be adopted by all communities. First the problems with the two methods, and then, following, the solution that works around both.

Problems: - It is so obvious that a century should change with the digits: 1899 goes with the 1800's and 1900 should obviously then go with the 1900's. But... - There is no year 0, causing the first year of the first century to be year 1, and then logically

Caveat: The second point was explained to all of us in 6th grade history. And we all got used to it. Or some of us got used to it and other's didn't care. Or no one got used to it, but those grade grubbing little bastards at the front of the class with their glasses and their hand-raising and their 'think-they're-so-smart'ing somehow remembered it past the test.

Solution:

CREATE A YEAR ZERO OUT OF ONE BC AND SHIFT EVERYTHING BEFORE THEN BY ONE

The implications of this proposal are profoundly simplifying.

  • we'll be able to use 'century' as you suggest and everyone else will be able to label things logically: 1900 is in the 1900's.

  • for all those people who would complain, having their birthdays all messed up because of the BC year change, hah, suck, you're all dead. Which is to say no one will complain because no one cares.

You're all welcome.

Next problem: 1950 is in the 20th century? That's messed up.

  • 2
    Thank you for the laugh :D – Mari-Lou A Mar 17 '18 at 18:30
  • This is exactly what ISO 8601 does. – Andrew Leach Mar 17 '18 at 22:23
  • @JJJ ISO 8601 is a data interchange standard, which is why it says that the interpretation of dates prior to 1582 need to be agreed between the parties discussing them. Where it's necessary to go back that far, the standard defines "0000" as 1BC and "0001" as 1AD. So no, 2018 is 2018 in ISO terms or Gregorian terms. – Andrew Leach Mar 18 '18 at 9:15
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    You realise, of course, that if this protocol is adopted, none of the years in the 20th century will begin with "20". Having got rid of the one "20xx" year, you should go the whole hog and introduce a "zeroth century", making all "19xx" years part of the renamed "19th century". :P – Lawrence Mar 18 '18 at 9:23

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