Mind your language


26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

I was puzzled by the caption to a picture in the Times Literary Supplement. The picture showed a model of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The caption said that it had been made in the ‘late 1600s’, but it was clear from other evidence that it dated from the later 17th century.

I had supposed that the use of 1600s to mean the whole century was an unlearned usage embraced by people easily confused by being presented with the term 17th century for years beginning with 16, or, on their behalf, by those who talk down to them.

In Italy, they manage these things differently, quattrocento referring to the century beginning with 14. In a paper like the TLS I’d expect readers to be able to cope with the 17th century or the quattrocento unaided by explanation. If readers are never presented with the opportunity to see such terms, how are they to learn?

The position is parallel to broadcasters always calling White Papers ‘discussion documents’. How are the listeners ever to learn what a White Paper is, if it is never mentioned? Does it imply that the specific term White Paper is to be expunged from the language in favour of a more general term?

In any case, the 1600s had a perfectly clear meaning already, standing for the first decade of that century. The pedants will say that this ran from 1601; ordinary folk start it at 1600. The new millennium pushed that convention off balance, as we began not by calling it *twenty hundred* but *two thousand*.

A decade or so before the millennium, people looked for a name for the first decade of the 21st century and the most popular idea was the noughties, sometimes spelled naughties. Yet the name wasn’t terribly popular. After all, not nought but O is used to name the zero in dates in the first decade of other centuries, such as nineteen-o-seven. This did not come in with the telephone; zero has been called O for centuries.

I suppose we are now in the twenty-teens, though it is an uncomfortable label. The twenty-twenties will probably suit us better, even if they do not come in like a lion, roaring.

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