C’mon Cecil, I feel certain that you know the details. Why withhold them from your readers?
An argument can certainly be made that decades, centuries, millennia begin in the year ending with “1” (1991, 1901, 2001) just after the odometer rolls over. And an equally compelling argument can be made that they start in the “0” year (1990, 1900, 2000). In fact, due to historical uncertainty, both are true. (Check your article on Schroedinger’s cat if this sort of duality is disturbing.)
It’s absolutely beyond dispute that no one observed a Year 0 in the Gregorian or Julian calendars. But it’s also absolutely beyond dispute that no one observed Year 1, Year 2, or even Year 524 – because, as you point out, the current numbering system was created in 525. Everything else is back-formation (“proleptic” to experts).
The issue of what number to apply to the year before the (back-formed) Year 1 has been plaguing people ever since. One approach, called the “historical system,” considers that year to be -1 (or 1 BCE, if you prefer). Another approach, called the “astronomical system,” considers that year to be 0.
And this is not some new-fangled re-interpretation. It really started to gain currency in the 1700s – but even the Venerable Bede, who died in the Eighth Century, before the mathematical concept of zero was even widely understood in Europe, commented that it made sense to him that there be a “null year” between the years after Christ and the years before Christ. Indeed, because neither system is definitive, scholars who reference precise dates prior to the common era must establish at the outset which of the two systems they are using; otherwise, correlation between sources is impossible.
A lot of people celebrated the start of the current century on January 1, 2001. They were not wrong; they were merely followers of the “historical system.” But I, a follower of the “astronomical system,” celebrated it on January 1, 2000 – and I wasn’t wrong either.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to act like they know something just because they read it somewhere (and frankly, your columns on the subject have been no help in this regard) have emboldened a crowd of people who think a search of Yahoo! Answers is more fact checking than can reasonably be expected of a single human being. They are not concerned with knowing things like “facts” and “details” – they just want to be able to point at others and say, “You’re a dumb-ass.” Surely, surely, this is not the crowd with whom you want to cast your lot.
I invite you to join me when I celebrate the beginning of the next century on January 1, 2100. I’ll be there. Will you? (And because I expect that I’ll still love a party even when I’m 137, I’ll be happy to show up a year later and do it all over again with the “historical system” crowd.)