A QUESTION vexing some of the great minds in the Western world, and maybe the Eastern world, for all we know, is this: Just when, exactly, does the 21st century start - on Jan. 1, 2000, or Jan. 1, 2001? The question is so complex that scholars might well need a decade to resolve it. The point in raising it now, though, is that it has a more immediate correlative, namely, when do the '90s start and the '80s end?
For journalists, the issue is much more than a brain-teaser. The answer will determine when newspapers and magazines run their obligatory fin de d'ecade wrapups and la d'ecade suivante look-aheads. Editors are tearing their hair out.
Mathematically, the 10th decade of the 20th century A.D. begins on Jan. 1, 1991, not Jan. 1, 1990 (the second decade A.D., after all, began in the year 11, not the year 10).
But now semantics kick in. Note the phrase in the preceding paragraph, ``the 10th decade of the 20th century.''
Is that synonymous with the 1990s? Or do the '90s begin (and the '80s end) the first time ``9'' appears as the second digit from the right, i.e., on Jan. 1, 1990? That would make sense, so maybe mathematical and semantic decades don't coincide.
What's a poor editor to do? Journalism being more art than science, and being peopled largely by liberal-arts-types who flunked Slide Rule 101 and regard even pocket calculators as a device for nerds, most reporters and editors are selecting the semantic option.
But that's not merely an arbitrary choice. It coincides with how the average person thinks about decades. And feels about them. Most of us are, for one reason or another (if only people's habitual eagerness for the new), ready to leave the '80s and march bravely into a new decade.
So we say that the '90s start in a few days, mathematical rigor be hanged - just as for most people the 21st century will begin in 2000, no matter what any nitpicker says.
The tidal wave of journalistic retrospectives on the '80s is already crashing about you - even if you suspect they may be a year early.