Fillers When I use a word …

Fin de siècle countdown

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1595
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    So, does the new millennium really begin on 1 January 2000, which is when everyone will celebrate it, or on 1 January 2001, as Arthur C Clarke told us it would? I don't think that it matters. If you don't like to think of the year 2000 as the start of the third millennium, just think of it as the start of the two thousands. This is, after all, the Italian way. For instance, trecento art and literature is from the 1300s—that is, the fourteenth century.

    Finger counting is the oldest method of reckoning, and because we have 10 digits on our hands, each with its own name, we count in tens, one digit (Latin digitus, a finger) at a time. And because we count in tens we make a big thing about multiples thereof, particularly hundreds and thousands. Which is why there's so much excitement about the turn of the millennium, even among those who don't believe that the Messiah was born 2000 or so years ago But there are many other ways of counting.

    The Mayans, for instance, counted in twenties, presumably by including their toes, and so did various tribes in the northern and western parts of what we now call Europe. Vestiges of vigesimal systems are still to be seen in the English words score (alluding to the notch that a shepherd would make on a stick after counting 20 sheep) and ream (20 quires). Modern counting systems have it too: in French, the word for 80 (quatre vingt) actually means four twenties, and in Danish the tens words for 50 to 90 mean two and a half twenties, three twenties, and so on.

    The Sumerians, on the other hand, counted in sixties, and the Babylonians in a mixture of tens and sixties, which is why we have 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour or a degree. A major advantage of the sexagesimal system is that 60 is divisible by many smaller numbers, making it highly suitable as a fixed denominator for counting in fractions. This advantage ensured the survival of the sexagesimal system until the invention of systematic decimal fractions by Simon Stevin of Bruges in 1582.

    Elsewhere there is counting in twos or fives—too many systems to discuss here.

    How do you spell millennium, I was asked at the beginning of the year, before everybody learnt how. Two n's, I said. I later realised that I should also have said two l's, but most people get that bit right. Ah well.

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