My theory is related to the Y2K crisis

My theory is that it wasn't very common to shorten the years in the 1800's, 1700, 1600; but that using the apostrophe for the year of dates became common after 1931, when two-digit years wouldn't be confused with days, and when writing was moving towards efficiency, and was then followed by the digital data entry period. Incidentally I see that Google isn't Y2K compliant or consistent in how they write dates.

I have tried to look a old documents and registries, but I need to do some deeper digging. Thanks

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    Could you elaborate on the connection between apostrophe usage and Y2K? – user22138 Jul 8 '13 at 20:16
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    Also, could you elaborate on the connection between apostrophe usage and "efficiency"? – user19148 Jul 8 '13 at 20:19
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    2 digit years would not be confused with dates after 1731 or 1631 or 1831 either. IN any case, as far as I know this is not an English phenomenon as such, I have seen it in various non-English speaking countries. – terdon Jul 8 '13 at 20:37
  • I agree with these comments. Answers should be based on facts, reliable sources, and expertise. Speculation is interesting and fun but is more appropriate in comment or chat than in an answer. – MetaEd Jul 9 '13 at 0:31
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    In your question, 1800's should be 1800s. It's a plural, not a possessive or contraction. – bib Jul 9 '13 at 1:11

The use of a two digit reference to a year less than a century before occurs at least as early as 1860 (and probably much earlier)

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

While there is no apostrophe, the sense is the same. The context seems to suggest that Longfellow's readers would have no difficulty understanding that he was referring to 1775.

[Earlier references encouraged!]

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    I can get you back to 1851, with a reference to the Jacobite rising as the "forty-five" – Andrew Lazarus Jul 9 '13 at 13:49

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