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Ocarina of Time was released in the winter of 1998.

(The actual release date was around/just before Christmas time.)

However, it's very much cold and "wintery" in January, February and sometimes/oftentimes even March -- that's three months in the beginning of the year which can also be said to be "winter of 1998" or "winter 1998".

Clearly, this can be made much more precise, but what I'm asking is if the specific phrase "winter 1998" or "winter of 1998" will generally be understood to refer to the later part of the year 1998 rather than the earlier part of 1998, which technically also is "winter of 1998".

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    I'd call that the "winter of 1998-99" and the winter in the early part of the year the "winter of 1997-98". – The Photon Mar 24 '20 at 19:28
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    When you're talking about a product that was released internationally it is confusing to talk about the date in terms of seasons because obviously many countries are actually in summer while others are in winter. – nnnnnn May 24 '20 at 0:43
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While winter can be defined in different ways, and with different degrees of precision, depending on the context in which the word is used and the purpose of the definition, it, on most definitions, denotes, in the Northern hemisphere, the season that straddles the end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next one. (This answer, like the OP's question is limited to the Northern hemisphere; an analogous question could be asked, and an analogous answer given, about the use of summer for a season in the Southern hemisphere.) Because of that, if one wishes to unambiguously refer to a specific winter, one has to say something like the winter of 1998-99. The phrases such as the winter of 1998, which mention only one of the calendar years, are bound to be ambiguous (when considered by themselves) between the winter that starts in that year, and the winter that ends in it.

Some people may be tempted to make the argument that the winter of 1998 should stand for the winter of 1998-99 on the ground that the season should be referred to by the year in which it begins. Others may be tempted to argue that it should stand for the winter of 1997-98, on the ground that the season should be referred to by the year in which the greater part of it is. Neither of these arguments is, however, universally accepted, so they are not of much help in determining what somebody actually meant by the winter of 1998.

Of course, as with most other ambiguities, the context can help one to discern which winter was meant by such a phrase. For example, if one is told that something took place in the autumn and winter of 1998, it is reasonable to assume that it is the winter of 1998-99 that was intended . On the other hand, in 'the winter and spring of 1998', it is likely that the winter of 1997-98 was intended. If one finds the winter of 1998 in a context that is mostly about Christmas, chances are that the phrase stands for the winter of 1998-99, but in a context that concerns the Valentine's Day, it is likely that the phrase stands for the winter of 1997-98.

In the absence of such disambiguating contexts, the phrases like the winter of 1998 are ambiguous, and wise, precise writers will avoid them, just like they avoid the formulations such as the midnight on the 10th.

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There are people with the knowledge that "winter xxxx" is the winter from Dec. 21 XXXX to Mar. 20 XXX(X+1): https://miniwebtool.com/first-day-of-winter/?year=2020&location=1. In the words found on this site, "First Day of Winter 2020, Monday, December 21, 2020", the period of wintry season preceding December 21 does not include the first day of winter 2020 and that period must then be in the winter of 2019.
Here is a much more solid source confirming this logic: https://www.calendarpedia.com/when-is/winter.html.

According to that, the specific phrase "winter XXXX" or "winter of XXXX" should always be taken as referring to the later wintry part of the year XXXX enlarged by the early winter part of year XXX(X+1).

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    How exactly is the second paragraph of this answer supposed to follow from the first? What is causing the ambiguity here is not the period before the winter solstice, but the period between the winter solstice and the end of the calendar year. – jsw29 Mar 24 '20 at 22:32
  • @jsw29 If, as stated in the second reference, "Winter 2020 starts on Monday, December 21, 2020 and ends on Saturday, March 20th 2021", necessarily, there is a part of this winter of 2020, in fact by far the greatest part, that is found in 2021. What the OP wants to know is whether it is the earlier part rather than the later part of the whole time considered as winter. The answer is that it is neither: "winter XXXX" refers not only to the later part but to that later part and the early part n the next year. (1/2) – LPH Mar 24 '20 at 22:52
  • @jsw29 I see no ambiguity, merely an unusual label according to which the greatest part of what it leads us to think would be in a given year is in fact in the next.(2/2) – LPH Mar 24 '20 at 22:56
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    "the period of wintry season preceding December 21 does not include the first day of winter 2020 and that period must then be in the winter of 2019" - You seem to be saying that winter weather in days or weeks leading up to the official beginning of winter 2020 on Dec 21 are actually part of winter 2019, but that doesn't make sense at all. – nnnnnn Mar 25 '20 at 3:29
  • @nnnnnn It seems to me that there is no other way to understand "Winter 2019 starts on December 21, 2019 and ends on March 20th 2020", which is the statement that correspopnds for 2019. I admit this reflects an apparently very unusual point of view, but of course I haven't taken the time to find an explanation for this strange "definition". One thing is sure, considering for instance the winter of 2020 as the the period from Jan. 1rst 2020 to Mar. 20th 2020 added to that from Dec.21rst 2020 to Dec.31rst 2020, results also in an error: that's two seasons. – LPH Mar 25 '20 at 19:21
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Yes, it's ambiguous.

Aside from precision and which end of the northern winter might be intended, as the other answers note, there's also the question of whether the northern winter was intended at all. In the southern hemisphere, winter refers to the middle of the year.

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