End of a decade?

A decade? You guessed it – something to do with 10. Several words with “dec” relate to 10, coming from the Greek “deka” for “ten”. A decapod is an animal with 10 legs. A decahedron is a solid with 10 surfaces. A decathlon is an athletic contests with 10 events. Even December – it’s the 10th month (of the ancient Roman year, before they interfered with it). Decimal – no explanation needed. The verb decimate, which popularly means to kill or destroy a large quantity, also has the original meaning: “to kill one person in 10”. And decade? A group of 10, or a group of 10 years. So in 2016 I could say, for example, “I predict that during the next decade aliens will arrive on Earth”, meaning that aliens would arrive between 2017 and 2026. However, “decade” also has another sense (rather like century for 100 years or millennium for 1000 years) – a specific block of 10 years officially starting with a year ending in the number 1: 2001-2011, 2011-2021 etc. If you think about it this makes sense, because the first year was the year 1. There was no year zero. (There were years before the year 1, but that’s another story.) The first decade (CE) therefore ran from year 1 to year 10. But you may have seen references today or recently (on TV or in the press etc) to the “end of the decade”, or “how the stock markets will finish this decade” – even though we are still in the year 2009, not 2010. This recalls the great debate about millennia and centuries. The fact is that popular usage has each decade starting with a year ending in the number zero. So by popular demand we are about to enter the 2nd decade of the 21st century (of the 3rd millennium).

By Josef Essberger for EnglishClub December 2009
Josef started teaching English as a foreign language in 1991 and founded EnglishClub for learners and teachers in 1997.


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