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As a non-native English speaker, I've only ever referred to "1700-talet", meaning "the 1700s" or "the 18th century".

In English, it's by far most common to say "18th century" to refer to the years "1700-1799". My brain, even to this day, keeps thinking of the "1800s" when somebody says "the 18th century". I have to actively make an effort to force-retrain my brain each and every time.

I extremely rarely hear anyone say "the 1700s" in English.

I understand that the first century was years 0-99, so that's why the "100s" are the "2nd century". But still. This way of referring to centuries just doesn't exist in my language, or, if it does, I've literally never heard or read it. I'm unsure how common it is outside English in general.

You can imagine how confused I used to be as a child seeing "20th Century Fox" at the end of The Simpsons in the 1990s: "Huh? Is this show from the future?!" And then they changed it to the "21st Century Fox" after year 2000, so the confusion continued...

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    Centuries go from '01-'00, not '00-'99, since there was no Year 0. The 21st century/next millennium started in 2001, not 2000, despite what New Year's Eve 1999 revelers might have had you believe. May 5 at 20:06
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    Well I confess, I am a native speaker and find I always translate in my head, “20th century” to “the 19-hundreds” before processing further. I even mentally do the equivalent for “21st century” ! I don’t often have to translate back again as I am rarely speaking or writing about past centuries 😀.
    – k1eran
    May 5 at 20:33
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    @AndrewSavinykh "-talet" is the Swedish suffix equivalent to the plural s at the end of "the 1800s" or "the 50s".
    – jkej
    May 6 at 5:02
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    It's interesting to note that "Xth century" is the most common way to refer to centuries, but nobody says "9th decade" or "199th" decade about the 1980s.
    – jkej
    May 6 at 5:46
  • 7
    @jkej In fields like medicine and ageing/developmental research, it isn't uncommon to refer to, say, "the 9th decade", meaning when people are aged in their 80s, as the first decade covers ages 0 through 9, and so on. For me at least, it still always requires a bit of mental arithmetic to understand what is meant. May 6 at 6:16

6 Answers 6

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As a first-language English speaker, my experience is that I have come to automatically associate the specific terms "20th century" and "21st century" with the 19--s and 20--s respectively, whereas I do find myself doing a mental adjustment of the form "subtract and convert to the (n-1)00s" for other cases of "n-th century". The established terminology is a bit annoying, but not something that I would expect to cause actual confusion as long as I have any time at all to think about it.

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    As an aside, I sympathize with the difficulties ESL speakers face here as I'm always tripped up in French by the fact that not only do French writers use the same "nth century" convention as in English, but it seems usual to write the ordinal number as a Latin numeral, so I encounter stuff like "XVIIe siècle" where I need to convert XVII to 17, then subtract one from 17 to get the sense of "the 16--s".
    – herisson
    May 5 at 19:57
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    I always have a mental hiatus when translating between year numbers and century numbers. It may be because I'm a programmer. The same happens to me with misbegotten programming languages that use 1-based arrays rather than 0-based arrays. (There should be a year zero CE, and the first century ought to be century zero. Or that's what my brain tries to insist! )
    – nigel222
    May 6 at 9:14
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    @nigel222 in the US you most definitely do, and the entire concept of "zero floor" or anything like it is very foreign to most Americans
    – Esther
    May 6 at 17:36
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    @Esther most people are not Americans, though
    – njzk2
    May 6 at 21:58
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    @TechInquisitor except for all the Brits and Aussies and Canadians in the crowd. And those who live in British territories, etc. We Americans do tend to be very America-centric.
    – FreeMan
    May 7 at 13:00
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Yes, I have seen and heard many native speakers of English make the same mistake. And it works exactly the same way in Dutch: you say de 18e eeuw when you mean 1700–1799. And Dutchmen frequently make the same mistake, especially those with less education in history. It is only natural.

P.S. Things like "the late second century B. C." can also be confusing...

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    Yes, it's extremely common. Even after 80 years with English, I have to stop and think pretty often about that one. It's a typical fencepost error. For a while I used Italian Quattrocento et al, which is convenient, but you can't use Italian everywhere. May 5 at 21:06
  • @JohnLawler: Now I've always found the Italian confusing, for why do they leave out the thousand? And I don't even know how they would say the fifth century. May 5 at 21:44
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    Same reason Spanish calls 1900 Noveciento. The mil is simply assumed. May 5 at 22:50
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    Who needs to talk about the 10th century? May 5 at 23:15
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    @JohnLawler: This sounds like a rhetorical question, but it makes no sense to me. May 5 at 23:49
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Yep. Done it several times (including on schoolwork). One of the most infuriating things about the English language and history. For reference, I’m a native English speaker.

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  • The reason why we have an error in our century numeric system is because the romans didn't have 0 i ii iii iv v vi... So they jumped straight to 1st century AD in all the european history books until the 12th - 13th century. May 7 at 11:18
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    It is not an 'error'. The first year of a person's life is the year ending with their first birthday. The first century AD was the years before 100 AD. May 7 at 18:31
  • @KateBunting when did the convention of numbering years in terms of AD start? It certainly wasn't year 0, and maybe not until well after 100. May 7 at 22:08
  • @MarkRansom - According to Wikipedia This dating system was devised in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor, but was not widely used until the 9th century. However, I wasn't suggesting that people at that time thought of themselves as living in the first century, just explaining how the system works. May 8 at 7:54
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Yes, it's a common mistake. The confusion arises from the fact that there are two common conventions for grouping consecutive years into centuries, and that the boundaries of the resulting centuries are not aligned.

"The 1800s" refers to the 100 years numbered 18xx, i.e. 1800..1899.

"The 18th century" refers to the 18th group of 100 years since the start of the common era. The Gregorian calendar doesn't have a year 0 (the year before 1 CE was 1 BCE) so the first century was the years 1-100, the second century was the years 101-200 and so on. The 18th century, following this pattern, was the years 1701-1800.

Note that the year 1800 was the first year of the 1800s, but the last year of the 18th century. Similarly, the year 2000 was the last year of both the 20th century and the second millennium.

If there was a year 0 in the Gregorian calendar then the two conventions would align their centuries on the same boundaries, but if we then wanted to justify calling the 1800s the 18th century we'd also need to refer to years 0-99 as "the zeroth century" which feels kind of weird.

Dates and times are a hot mess and the bane of computer programmers everywhere.

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    And there's the problem that "the 1800s" might be used to mean 1800--1809.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 21 at 12:26
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There is a simple way to check how common the use of numbering historical periods by centuries. Put into a translation programme the English '18th century' and translate it into as many languages as you like. You will find that all the European romance languages, as well as the germanic languages and Greek, and you will find that they all use 'century'. In romance languages: dixhuitiême siècle (French); diciottesimo secolo (Italian); achtzehntes Jarhundert .... I cannot speak for other language families outside Europe, but Google gives for Hindi athaarahaveen (=18th) sadee (=century). Ukrainian also uses this system of historical counting.

It is true that patterns of historical events do not always (or even usually) fit neatly into hundred year chunks.

It is true that many people find it easy to slip up over which ordinally counted century is which cardinally counted 'hundreds', especially, I would argue, with the centuries before the Common Era.

That said, there is nothing wrong with calling the 21st century the 20 hundreds, except that to me, at least, it sounds a bit odd.

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    It is perhaps not so strange that if you enter the English phrase "18th century", you get a similar phrase back for most languages. If you instead enter "the 1700s" you get a different answer for most languages. None of that tells you which of them is the preferred term in those languages. For Swedish, Danish and Finish, however, you get something starting with "1700" regardless, because there are no idiomatic equivalents to "18th century" in those languages.
    – jkej
    May 6 at 5:26
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    Also, "the 2000s" probably sounds better if you read it as "the two thousands" instead of as "the twenty hundreds".
    – jkej
    May 6 at 5:29
  • Sure, but the 2000s and the two thousands refer to 2001-3000, don't they ;)
    – Phil Sweet
    May 6 at 6:34
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    @PhilSweet There's certainly a logic to what you're saying, but language is not always that logical. So far "the two thousands" are mostly used to refer to the period from 2000 until now (and maybe the nearest foreseeable future). We might have to wait a couple of hundred years to see how the usage develops.
    – jkej
    May 6 at 7:18
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    @jkej I think you would need to look below the raw statistics at who is making which vocabulary choice. My raw guess is that you would find that academics, particularly historians, and readers / former students of these tend to use the ordinal option. Either way the choice should not be a basis for 'date snobbery', like 'scon' versus 'scone' or sugar before/after milk.
    – Tuffy
    May 6 at 9:01
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Not only English speakers, but the other language speakers are in the same boat. While talking about centuries, just add one to the first two digits of the year.

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  • It's probably from latin. French, italian, Spanish, books all use the same technical enumeration... It's wrong and it's a misnomer. For buldings they say rez de chaussée and ground floor for the 0 value. It's kindof amazing that they never thought of the number zero until indian ten base system. So essentially the origin is due to the latin i ii iii counting system. May 7 at 11:14
  • It's not wrong or a misnomer, it's just a natural consequence of the common way people count things. If you hold up a bunch of bananas and ask children to count them, they're going to count starting from one, not zero. If you tried to teach them to start from zero, you're going to confuse the kids and annoy their parents. That's why it's not wrong.
    – barbecue
    May 8 at 14:26

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