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2001: A date oddity

BY NOW, you undoubtedly have heard the argument about a million times. It always starts the same way. You'll be hanging out with a group of people, and the subject of the impending change in millennium comes up. Perhaps it comes from a commentator on the television; perhaps someone just says something about where he's planning to go for a millennium party. Inevitably, someone interjects, "Well you know ... the new millennium doesn't really start until 2001."

Technically, that's true, but it seems a little confusing. After all, when you're one year old, that means that one year of your life has gone by, right? So it seems that if it's the year 2000, then by analogy, 2000 years -- two millennia -- should have gone by. Unfortunately, there's a difference in that the date year is always the year in progress. This pattern started with the very first year, which was year one, and not year zero. So in truth, two millennia will not have elapsed until the end of the year 2000.

One might well ask whether that really matters. The mathematical explanation of the reasons behind someone's saying that the next millennium will not begin until 2001 are sound and unassailable. Nonetheless, anyone daring to point out the truth about the "new millennium" beginning Jan. 1, 2000 invariably is shushed or, in less restrained groups, shouted down. That doesn't seem right. They're correct, after all.

Aren't they? Like I said, the position is technically invulnerable. It is, however, completely irrelevant.

The principal function of any system of dates or times is to embody a yardstick that can be used to compare the temporal location and duration of the events of human history. To achieve that end, the system need only be reasonably consistent. The most elementary parts, and the larger units into which they assemble, all must be of the same size. Aside from that, everything about the system, including the sizes of the units and the point it calls zero, can be produced in a completely arbitrary way without any reduction in effectiveness. In fact, the dates that we use are completely arbitrary -- determined from a mistaken estimate of the date of Christ's birth.

So the characteristics of the system have significance only in that they happen to have been used to record events. Facts about the system itself are largely inconsequential.

Despite this, milestones that occur in the dating structure aren't totally irrelevant. People observe these systemic milestones all the time. We have parties to celebrate a new year, parties for the new decade, and -- of course -- parties to mark the new millennium. This suggests that there is some significance attached to the system itself. That significance, however, is not grounded in the technical aspects. The importance of date changes instead derives from the psychological effect that the milestones have on the people who use the system.

The magnitude of that psychological effect seems to be directly correlated to the number of digits in the year that are changing. When 1989 changed to 1990, the airwaves were filled with retrospectives and the like discussing the decade that had just passed. Never mind that the decade hadn't truly ended yet -- the next decade wouldn't properly begin until 1991. People felt that the change from 89 to 90 was the significant milestone and the change from 90 to 91 was less important.

The same rule applies here. The change that has the most psychological significance is the move from 1999 to 2000. The impact of the passage of time hits when you have to start writing a date that looks totally different from those you have written for your entire life. That change occurs when we cross the border from 1999 to 2000, not when we move from 2000 to 2001.

But still, technically, the millennium doesn't change at midnight on the upcoming first of January. The bottom line, however, is that the strict interpretation doesn't matter. The technical aspects of the system are ultimately no less arbitrary than the psychology of the population, and the interpretation stemming from them is obviously far less significant. For all practical intents and purposes, the new millennium does begin Jan. 1, 2000 -- technicalities be damned.

Of course, if you're still insistent on the technically correct date change, you can just throw your millennium bash next year. Plenty of people are bound to show up. After all, not everybody gets to celebrate a new millennium twice.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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