I have recently been asked why we say years the way we do. Why, for example, do we say nineteen hundred (1900) but two thousand (2000)? The recently released film 2012 (pronounced twenty twelve) has highlighted this question. ‘What will happen in the 22nd century?’, the questioner continued. ‘Will we be saying twenty one hundred and one (2101) or two thousand one hundred and one, or will we stick to twenty one oh one?’
Of course it is impossible to say how usage will change in the future. It is even hard to make reliable statements about current spoken usage without access to a very large corpus of spoken English, but I’ll have a go. My impression is that this confusion all started with the millennium, aka The Year Two Thousand (2000). Before that fateful year came along we all spoke happily of nineteen fifty five (1955) or twelve twenty one (1221) and no one thought anything of it (though years before 1000 did give us pause: I think we tend to say the year eight hundred (800), or eight hundred AD just to be clear that we are referring to a date and not just a number). But we say one thousand, two thousand, not ten hundred or twenty hundred, so it would sound a bit weird to say the year twenty hundred. People therefore became accustomed to referring to the year 2000 as two thousand, and having started on that path it maybe became difficult to switch back to the previous system. Most people have therefore stuck with two thousand and two (2002), two thousand and three (2003) etc, even though it is perfectly possible to say twenty oh two, twenty oh three (on the same pattern as 1902, which as far as I know is always said nineteen oh two). Indeed, if I remember rightly there was something of a campaign to get the latter form accepted on the grounds that it was more logical, and at least some (all?) BBC newsreaders say twenty oh nine (2009) rather than two thousand and nine.
For 2010 on it seems that most people are happy to say twenty ten (2010), twenty fifteen (2015) and so on, and it is hard to imagine that people in the future will say two thousand one hundred (2100) etc rather than twenty one hundred. We shall have to wait and see. Of course, since this and all other ways of numbering dates are the result of historical accident, it may be that future events will lead to a complete change in the way the years are both counted and said.
As for why this way of saying years arose in the first place, I suspect it is simply because it is easier and quicker – try saying 1777 both ways to see what I mean.
I’d be interested to hear your views on this topic.Email this Post