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Is The Decade Actually Ending?


Every once in a while, we get a particularly spicy listener letter - one with a line like this. I expect NPR to be the smartest broadcast source of information, not to copy the ignorance and stupidity of the majority of the population.


The ignorance and stupidity in question was referring to today - December 31, 2019 - as the last day of the decade. Now, here's the argument. There was never a year zero, only a year one, so decades, centuries, and millennia all began with a year ending in one. Meaning today, we're exactly one year from the end of the decade. But this prompts all kinds of troubling questions.

KELLY: Among them - is the entire best of the decade media industrial complex built on a lie?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We're going to take you through a decade of incredible music.

CHANG: Is 1999's "Willennium" the worst-time album in history?


KELLY: And is our entire system of years basically just made up? It turns out, kind of.

CARLOS NORENA: Our dating schemes, at one level, are quite arbitrary because not everybody will necessarily agree from which moment we should begin counting forward.

KELLY: That is Carlos Norena, a historian at UC Berkeley. He says that, until around 1,500 years ago, much of Europe and the Mediterranean used the founding of Rome as a starting point. That was their year one.

CHANG: Then, one day, a Christian abbot named Dionysus Exiguus thought, hey, wouldn't it make more sense if we started counting dates from the birth of Christ? Well, that idea got kicked up the chain and...

NORENA: Eventually, this new dating scheme took hold.

KELLY: That is when the idea of the year of our lord - in Latin, anno domini - AD - began. And it started, crucially, with year one, not year zero.

NORENA: I don't know why they didn't begin with zero. It seemed to make more sense to them to begin with a one.

KELLY: But did it make sense?

CHANG: Or did it birth the decade problem and accompanying listener letters that survive to this very day? But say you do think this decade has one more year. Does it actually matter?

KELLY: Yeah, OK, so it might if you're a Yankees fan because the New York Yankees have appeared in a World Series in every decade since the 1920s - an amazing streak, which definitively ends tonight at midnight, unless the decade doesn't end until next December 31.

CHANG: You got to feel for Yankees fans who choose to look at time through, shall we say, rose-colored 2020 novelty glasses, right?

SEAN FORMAN: I really don't have much sympathy for Yankees fans, so not really.

CHANG: That is Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference, a compendium and authority on such matters. His organization is squarely in the "tomorrow is a new decade" camp. Best pitcher of the 1990s has more of a ring to it than, say, best pitcher of the decade spanning from 1991 to 2000.

KELLY: And if that is not enough to convince you...

FORMAN: This will come off as glib, but I - you know, I think if Prince thinks the millennium ended in 1999, that probably should be good enough for all.


KELLY: However you count the years, we hope your arbitrary span of the next 10 is even better than the last.


PRINCE: (Singing) So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999. I was dreamin' when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast. But life is just a party and parties weren't meant to last. War is all around us... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.