The main panel discussion on yesterday’s Meet the Press, titled America–The Next Decade, was premised upon the sentiment that a new decade would officially kick off on January 1, 2010. In fact, we’ve been subjected to quite a lot of end-of-decade talk lately.
I suppose a legitimate argument can be made that a new decade begins at every moment. Hence, the decade that commenced on November 4, 1984, at 7:45:32 a.m. cashed in its chips on November 4, 1994, at precisely 7:45:31 a.m. And this very moment (right now) is the final one of the decade that started exactly ten years minus one moment ago.
Therefore, the decade that began January 1, 2000, at 00:01 a.m. has no choice but to expire December 31, 2009, at 11:59 p.m. The quantum effects of special relativity aside, ten years are ten years–a decade is a decade no matter what point in time the clock was started. A decade always ends ten years to the zeptosecond from the zeptosecond we started counting. And there exists no law against celebrating the end of a previous decade and the beginning of a new one whenever the mood is upon us.
Of course, if everyone launched and feted their own official decades willy-nilly, the attendant lack of consensus would render a title like America–The Next Decade meaningless to those whose personal decades happen to be out of sync with NBC’s decad-ent bookending habits. Luckily, rampant individualism in this area does not obtain. Given that an overwhelming supermajority appears to subscribe to a unified–albeit rather bizarre–method of counting years, the idea that the new decade is only a few days off stirs little controversy, if any.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I count to ten, I go like this:
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
If I wanted to divide, say, a large pile of marbles into groups of ten, I would certainly not go:
Ten, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.
Oh no. Buttoned-down dork that I am, I’d properly start with one and wrap up with ten, then move on to the next group of ten, and once again start with one and work my way up to ten. For lack of a better excuse, that’s how my parents taught me to count, and I’ve stuck with the strait-laced sequential method to this day. I always count one to ten. Never ten to nine with one through eight sandwiched in between.
Come to think of it, I’ve never really heard anybody perform a count by starting with the last number in a given series, then jumping to the first, proceeding sequentially from there, and concluding with the penultimate number in that series.
Yet when it comes to defining a set of ten not marbles but years, there seems to be universal agreement on precisely such topsy-turvy enumeration. Every decade officially ends with year nine (e.g., 2009), and the following decade kicks off with year ten (e.g., 2010).
A decade is defined as a period of exactly ten years. The year 1 B.C. was immediately followed by the year 1 A.D. without a year zero in between. Hence, the first decade A.D. necessarily ran from 1 A.D. until and including 10 A.D. It follows that the second decade A.D. commenced with 11 A.D. and ran until and including 20 A.D.
If one keeps counting in units of ten, it is arithmetically impossible to arrive at a decade that begins with a year whose number ends in zero unless one decade in the past 2000 years was only nine years long, in which case it would have fallen short of the accepted definition of decade. Therefore, any claim that the current decade ends December 31, 2009, must be attended by a compelling explanation regarding this mysterious 9-year-long decade.
Bottom line, we habitually celebrate the end of our decades one year earlier than we would if we counted years from one to ten like we count everything else. Strangely, in demarcating our decades, we suddenly become ambassadors to the Ministry of Silly Counts.