Stupid Question ™
Dec. 28, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: The new millennium (and the new century) starts on Jan. 1, 2001, but 2000 has been called the “millennium” all year. Was there a similar mass delusion in 1900, with people calling it the first year of the 20th century?
—Dennis G. Frazier
A: There certainly was a similar (in fact, even bigger) controversy. Whether you consider it a “delusion” depends on which side you take. And since the entire debate is essentially absurd and arbitrary, it will certainly recur at the end of the next century—whenever that is.
This all goes back to a mistake made by a 500s monk named Dionysius Exiguss.
Dionysius was commissioned to make a chronology for the pope. He started counting years with a new system when he got to the birth of Jesus, which he reckoned as Dec. 25 and tweaked to Jan. 1 for convenience. The new system was Anno Domini, or “Year of the Lord,” and Dionysius started counting from AD 1.
This was a classic screw-up.
Nothing is a year old until a year has passed—including a year itself. The first year should’ve been AD 0, just as a baby is 0 years old until it has its first birthday. But in Dionysius’ own system, Jesus was born in Year 1 of a year named for his birth.
Thus, in AD 10, only nine years of the Christian era had passed. But by definition, a decade must have 10 years; thus the new decade must be counted started from AD 11 instead of AD 10. Likewise, the second century had to begin with AD 101, and so on to our current controversy.
There is no way to say whether 2000 or 2001 “really” begin the new millennium, because the debate is entirely semantic. 2001 makes sense in the internal logic of Dionysius’ erroneous system; 2000 feels more natural but makes the first century only 99 years long.
Since “AD” wasn’t widely used until the 1100s, it took a while for people to realize the problem.
Debate has raged at the turn of every century since 1699. The Jan. 1, 1900 London Times was loaded with letters on the topic, most pro-1900.
Sweden and Germany celebrated 1900 as the turn of the century, but nearly every other country and publication formally declared for 1901. The Jan. 1, 1900 New York Times mocked a couple who considered themselves the first newlyweds of the 20th century, and sniffed at “the new century, as the Germans elect to call it.”
The overwhelming acceptance of 2000 as the millennium is probably because it’s just too cool a number, looked forward to for so long. (Thirty years ago, 1999 was already being called the “end of the millennium.”)
I think a Jan. 1, 1901 New York Times editorial said it best: “The endless story overlaps the centennial divisions, and he who reads only from the year 1801 onward begins not with a chapter, but in the middle of a sentence.”