When Does a New Decade Actually Begin?

Boonyachoat/iStock via Getty Images
Boonyachoat/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve been at all present on the internet and social media in particular during the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed people arguing about when the new decade actually begins: January 1, 2020 or January 1, 2021.

Culturally, most people agree that decades begin on years ending with zero and end on years ending with nine. The ’70s ran from 1970 to 1979, the ’80s went from 1980 to 1989, and so on. But a swell of people says that way of thinking is incorrect. Because there was no year 0, they argue, it’s more accurate to say that decades begin on years ending with one and end on years ending with zero.

That argument is based on the Gregorian calendar, which is oriented around the birth of Jesus Christ. In the 6th century, an abbot named Dionysius Exiguus attempted to calculate the year Jesus was born. We now know that his calculation was incorrect, but it became the basis for both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars. According to TimeandDate.com, Dionysius labeled the year of Jesus’s birth with the Roman numeral for one (I). About 200 years later, a monk known as St. Bede the Venerable completed five books of history that calculated the years before Christ’s birth. But Bede recorded the latest year before Jesus’s birth as 1 B.C., leaving no space for a year 0. In fact, the concept of zero didn’t even reach Europe until at least the 12th century.

So technically, it’s only been 2019 years since the year Dionysius determined was 1 A.D.—not 2020. That’s led some organizations, like the Farmers' Almanac and the United States Naval Observatory, to favor a decade that begins in 2021 and ends in 2030.

That’s not the whole story, though. Andrew Novick, an electrical engineer who works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told NPR that it’s mainly a semantic issue.

“The definition of a decade really is just 10 years,” he said. So 2020 to 2029 works just as well as 2021 to 2030. But because many people tend to discuss decades in terms of culture, it gets confusing when you decide that the year 1990 was technically in the same decade as the ’80s, Novick said. “I would say however somebody wants to define something in language is up to them,” he told NPR. “But they might have to clarify how they’re defining it so that people know what they’re saying.”

TimeandDate.com points out that this specific issue only exists with the widely used Gregorian calendar, and that other calendars—like the Jewish calendar and the Islamic calendar—use completely different numbers for years.

“It’s a man-made system,” Konstantin Bikos, the lead editor of TimeandDate.com, told CNN. “It matters in terms of categorizing time spans and talking about time spans. But the 203rd decade is, in astronomical terms, no different than the decade before or after.”

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In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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