The Turning Point

Born in the last half of the last century (just barely) (just barely the last half, I mean, not just barely born), I heard dates said like this:

1776 – Seventeen seventy-six – Americans declare their independence (and 11 years later Congress — being in no big hurry — defines the national flag).

1890 – Eighteen ninety – My grandmother is born. (I know this doesn’t look like a baby but my earliest photos of her are as an 18-year-old, and I figured I might as well use a photo that looks the way I remember her.)

Belle B. Thompson

1945 – Nineteen forty-five – WWII ends and my parents marry.

A.S. and M.M. Gibson


1952 – Nineteen fifty-two – The blessed year of my birth. (I won’t claim that my birth as such was blessed, but the fact of it remains important to me.)


1969 – Nineteen sixty-nine – American men land on the moon and I graduate from high school.


All dates were said like that. Well, almost all. An occasional exception — in this case, to keep a metre — only proved the rule.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
In fourteen hundred and ninety-three
Columbus sailed the deep blue sea.

But despite all the precedents from twelve hundred to nineteen hundred, when Y2K came along I wasn’t surprised to hear it referred to as the “year two thousand.” After all, “twenty hundred” doesn’t roll off the tongue. But I waited in full confidence for “twenty aught one.”

It was naught to be. Having talked endlessly about “two thousand,” folks seemed to find “two thousand and” more natural than “twenty aught.”

I waited again for the teens. Surely now the usage would revert to the standard I grew up with. I mean, who would say “two thousand and eleven” or, even, “two thousand eleven” when they could say “twenty eleven”?

Most people, that’s who.

But this coming week we move into new territory, for 2020 is upon us. Surely no one will say “two thousand and twenty” when they could say “twenty twenty.” Well, hardly anyone. My guess is that after this next year, “two thousand and” will be done for. We’ll see.

But all this got me to wondering about how people said their dates back in the day thereof. Is it possible that we have reverse-engineered the way dates are pronounced for the past based on two accidents of history? To wit:

  • The natural English shorthand of “nineteen” for “one thousand nine-hundred” in dates written as numerals
  • The decrease in formality the nineteen hundreds bore witness to

I mean, did Queen Victoria really say “nineteen-oh-one” for 1901, as I do? It seems a tad casual for her.

In radio interviews and TED Talks, did Michelangelo really give his birth year of 1475 as “fourteen seventy-five” or did he call it “the year of our Lord one thousand four hundred and seventy-five”?

Did the court of Anglo-Saxon King Harold refer to 1066 as “ten sixty-six” and all that? Really?

It seems unlikely. What *does* seem likely is that there are other things I also misconstrue by assuming that other times are like mine.


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20 Responses to The Turning Point

  1. Dave Jobson says:

    Speaking of turning we are now well in to the fourth turning of the saeculum that began in 1946. This fourth stage is a time of crises and unrest. How much more unrest will we see in the next ten years or so.
    Not to mention the colder weather expected as the sunspot cycle passes through a Maunder type minimum over the next 30 years.
    Stay tuned!
    Happy New Year!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – I had to look up saeculum but didn’t see any link to increased unrest. Goodness I hope not. As for the Maunder minimum, I *will* stay tuned. Thanks!

      • Dave says:

        Taken from The Fourth Turning, a book by William Strauss and Neil Howe (1997). Being a big picture person I love the study of cycles. Hence the sunspot cycle and the four turnings of a saeculum. Summary of Fourth Turning stuff can be studied at Generation stuff interesting.
        As for weather, sunspots have not been this infrequent since the 1800’s. The sun actually wobbles around the centre of gravity of the solar system in response to gravitational forces from the planets. Also said to be an influence on the earth’s core and hence activity of earthquakes and volcanoes.
        OH Pleeeeease! Go back to sleep old man Dave! Give us a break.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Dave – Heck no, don’t go to sleep. I’ve read about a connection some people see/suspect between sunspots and weather/climate, but not seismic activity. Things *are* complicated!

  2. barbara says:

    And I, too, am SO looking forward to 2020 — so simple to say– and perhaps “We can see clearly now…” could happen…

    Now, if could just regularize the dates written in numbers. e.g., 1/12/20 is first of December 2020 or is it January 12, 2020. At least with 20/12/1 one less date (of three) is understood.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – I understand that Canadians (and Brits, I assume) do the dates one way, and Americans do them another. I tend to use all four digits for the year and 3 letters for the month so it’s clear. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but not always of clarity.

  3. Tom Watson says:

    Some neat family photos! A reminder that tempus fugit.

  4. Alison Uhrbach says:

    The changing of years that I remember is from 1960 to 1961 because of my father’s “party trick” of turning the calendar upside down and it reading the same. Somehow – that New Year’s sticks in my mind and all the others are just a blur.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – I must have missed that party! I can see how it would stick in your mind. Only an engineer, eh?

  5. Thanks for the fascinating perspective on climate change. We need to keep sunspots in mind.

    Have you heard that G5 is going to make a mess of our weather forecasting? Not to mention opening the details of our personal lives to anyone who cares to spy upon them? We need more people with 20/20 vision for the future, rather than for hindsight.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I hadn’t heard about G5 and weather forecasting, although I know serious people who are seriously worried about AI. Scary stuff.

  6. Dave Jobson says:

    Now let’s see. Personal data leads to profit and capitalism is driven by profit. Capitalism provides “free” internet because??? No free lunch you say.

  7. Dave Jobson says:

    Back to the predictions to accompany the Fourth Turning:
    A time of escalation of crises , war, populism etc.
    Trump assinates Iran’s military leader. Humm.
    The rise of populist leaders continues.
    Stay tuned.

  8. Danielle says:

    Love those pics, especially the baby one as I truly see how you currently resemble your mom in her profile.

    Sunday, January 5, 2020!!!

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