Comment to 'The World's Biggest Pedant'
  • That loss of faith in a book is no fun. There’s a writer of historical fiction, some of whose books I’ve enjoyed. But one of them opens with a new century’s eve party, and is followed a few months later by the death of Queen Victoria (in 1901). That jangled so much I had to research it. I gather than some people did/do claim that new centuries should be marked at the end of 1900/2000 etc. But I could find no indication that this actually happened in Victorian Britain. Although I’d be delighted to discover that I am wrong about this, opening a novel with something with the potential to jar so badly seems wrong- whether factually correct or not.

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    • But Catherine, why would you assume that the modern psychosis of oneupmanship in all things – and the extension that demands the ringing in a new century/millennium a whole year before the last one has completed, on the basis of laziness induced by decade-ies terminology – would have been prevelant a century ago, before the onset of ubiquitous, instant media? (If anything, I wonder whether it would have been considered a big enough deal to be worth of a party.) In those days, cooler heads would have won out. Print media, under the guidance of editors who cared about facts more than hyped instant feedback (due to the lack of the latter), would have presented the facts of the matter.

      Specifically, that the new century is at the end of the xx00 year.

      For starters, the calendar system we use has no years 0. It counts down 3-2-1 BCE, then switches to 1-2-3 CE. The first century needs a full count of 100 years, so from 1CE to 100CE. Consequently, the 20th got all the way to 2000, inclusive.

      The laziness aspect probably comes from the way people refer to age; someone "being in their 20s." This is because they say their age is 20 once they have completed their 20th year of life (during the first year, before they are 1, age is counted in days, weeks, then months). When mapped onto the grouping of decades – like the 20s – based on the second most significant digit in the year, cognitive laziness triggers a need to apply the same approach to centuries and millennia despite the logical error.

      Perhaps the best approach in a case like this, other than avoidance, is to have the accuracy challenged within the presented events, thereby establishing what is correct and what is (modern) cultural laziness.

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      • You’ve lost me somewhere there Rick! While I in no way whatsoever want to get into a debate about when such things “should” be marked, as I have every confidence in your ability to tie any argument into knots and be correct at the end of it all, I think the point remains that the most recent century change was certainly celebrated at the end of 1999/ beginning of 2000. Therefore to come across something in a novel very obviously different does jar the reader, at least one who knows when Queen Victoria died. So either, as you suggest, you have to justify this somewhere in the text and preferably before your reader puts down the book to research this puzzle, or at the very least in the historical end-notes. Or you change your story ever so slightly to avoid such a jolt in the first few pages. Admittedly my research into this didn’t get me very far, but I didn’t come across any evidence that the author was factually, if not fictionally, correct. There was some suggestion that in America there was more of a consensus that 1900/1901 was the right time to celebrate, but nothing to say that this occurred in Britain. So I reluctantly concluded this might have been a mistake on the author’s part.

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