Tag Archives: Julian calendar

History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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Vague Exactitude

Grammer Flunkies 5Recently I asked my Facebook connections if they could help me with a Latin phrase; the phrase has to do with the computation of days in the Julian calendar (calends, ides, nones, etc.).  Here is my exact post:

“Calling all Romance Language speakers (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.): Does the following phrase (any of its words) render something similar in your language, and if so, what do those words mean? The phrase is in Latin, “Principium mensis cujusque vocato kalendas” I understand the first and last words, but am curious about the three middle words… Thanks for any help.”

Quite a discussion ensued; but I still don’t know if there is an etymological equivalent or relative to “cujusque.”  One person suggested the connection of mensis (month) with the medical term – which I should have thought of as the German slang term is “Mens” for women’s monthly cycle.  But all other entries tried to help me with the first and last word, and I spent more time explaining my request than I saved by asking in the first place.

This is a trend I’ve noticed on the rise on Facebook in particular, but I am aware that it’s also happening across Cyberland; too often people skim over a text and assume they’ve understood it well enough to make an informed contribution to a discussion.  It’s harmless when it only has to do with topics of grammar and language; but when it also enters the formation process of people’s opinions in the political or social arenas, society beware.  I usually ignore such discussions with a healthy dose of eye-rolling; but sometimes I have to intervene in the propagation of half-baked ignorance, or I won’t be able to sleep at night.

The illustration is a perfect example of this vague exactitude; people took the time to reply, but they did not take the time to properly read, to inform themselves of the actual task at hand.  I have only two words to add:  STOP IT!

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