Calendrical semantics

« previous post | next post »

There are a few years whose meaning everyone knows, like 1492. This song invokes 1918 (for the flu pandemic, not the end of WWI), 1930, and 1968:



45 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

    2020 may be the year when we achieve perfect vision / insight.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 2:18 pm

    "There are a few years whose meaning everyone knows, like 1492". Not everyone — it means nothing to me, I am afraid … 1066, yes; 1492, sadly not.

  3. monscampus said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

    All Americans will know 1492, whereas 1066 and all that concerns Britain.

  4. Andrew Taylor (no relation) said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 3:31 pm

    I'm not American, but I know the significance of 1492 (from the rhyme, which as a mnemonic is completely useless, except for giving the last digit).

  5. nat said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    @PT
    why "sadly"?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    "Sadly" because, if Mark can assert with confidence that everyone knows the meaning of 1492 and I do not, then my education must have been lacking. But I also completely concur with Andrew (no relation) Taylor that there is a mnemonic rhyme which might or might not involve 1492 — all that I (and probably Andrew) know for sure is that it ends in "two" : "in something hundred and somety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue".

  7. Jamie said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

    I had no idea what 1492 was, either (history was never my best subject; too many dates to memorize)

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 6:29 pm

    That is of course it – "fourteen hundred and ninety two" (and I wouldn't need that, in fact I consider that rhyme rather silly, but as everyone seems to know it it must accomplish something …).

    History is more than dates to memorise, but anyone that knows history well will end up knowing a lot of dates – or at least years; you'd expect any educated American to know the year Lincoln was killed, but the exact day is unimportant.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  9. Anarcissie said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 6:57 pm

    Back in Janurary I made up a card celebrating 'the year of clear vision'. About half of the audience didn't know what I meant. I take it the term '20-20' vision has fallen out of use,

    1492 was also the year when the Reconquista was finally realized in Spain. The expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain followed, and money was available to send an expedition west to look for a more direct route to India and China, which had results which were better for some than for others.

    When I was in school I was told it was the end of the Middle Ages, but I prefer the fall of the Byzantine Empire for that slot.

  10. Thomas Rees said,

    June 27, 2020 @ 8:21 pm

    Also in 1492 was the publication of the first grammar of a modern European language, Antonio de Nebrija’s Gramática de la lengua castellana.

  11. Timothy Rowe said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 12:16 am

    Everybody is, of course American. Everybody who is anybody, at least; the rest of us don't count.

  12. mg said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 1:19 am

    1492 was the year the Jews were expelled from Spain (and, soon after, Portugal). Many fled to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, hoping the Inquisition would stay in Europe. Sadly, the Inquisition followed.

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 2:34 am

    1492 was one of a fairly small number of dates that was firmly drilled into my skull in history class, despite being neither American nor Spanish. And for good reason I think: the European discovery and subsequent colonization of the Americas eventually changed the history of whole world.

    (Other dates similarly drilled included 1066, 1521, 1648, and 1914-18 and 1939-45.)

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 3:02 am

    " I take it the term '20-20' vision has fallen out of use". It has probably been metricised to '6/6', 20 feet being roughly six metres.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 3:58 am

    1492 was one of a fairly small number of dates that was firmly drilled into my skull in history class, despite being neither American nor Spanish.

    Same here. As mentioned above, it's the traditional end of the Middle Ages.

    "I take it the term '20-20' vision has fallen out of use"

    Not in the US.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 4:38 am

    I have to say, the idea that the Middle Ages could end in exactly 1492 strikes me as being on a par with the idea that restaurants, hotels, etc., can safely re-open on July 4th but not on July 3rd …

  17. rosie said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 5:41 am

    Another date that has been used as the end of the Middle Ages is 22 Aug 1485, when Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, thus ending the Plantagenet dynasty and beginning the Tudor dynasty, as the victorious Henry Tudor became Henry VII.

  18. Andrew M said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 9:24 am

    Yes, I was always told that the English Middle Ages ended in 1485, but my understanding was that for Europe as a whole they ended in 1453.

    (

  19. Doug said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 11:02 am

    "(Other dates similarly drilled included 1066, 1521, 1648, and 1914-18 and 1939-45.)"

    I've just Googled 1521, and I'm still not sure what that year's #1 event was.

  20. F said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 1:20 pm

    Doug, given that Andreas is presumably Swedish, my bet is that it's the "official" beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 1:21 pm

    1066 and 1492 have meaning for me (as in I know why they are considered significant by some, not that they significance for me); 1521 and 1648 don't.

    According to Wikipedia, one of the things in 1521 was January 3 – Pope Leo X excommunicates Martin Luther, in the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. That might be it.

    An interesting one linguistically is the Diet of Worms, which turned out not to be at all what I thought it might be for either of the nouns involved.

    Not at all sure what the standout event might be for 1648. The Wikipedia page for 1648 mentions, among other things, the linguistically ambiguous Republic of Both Nations, but when I follow the link, there is no mention of that term.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 1:38 pm

    The rate of usage of "twenty twenty" in eyesight contexts in AmEng has probably been reasonably steady but as the calendar year A.D. 2020 approached the rate of usage of the same syllables in other contexts dramatically increased, thus decreasing the percentage of total mentions that involve eyesight and presumably reducing the odds that a given person would immediately free-associate to the eyesight context. Many numbers or sequences of numbers have a very specific meaning in a specific specialized context, but that doesn't mean that everyone hearing the number will immediately free-associate to that context. E.g., if you hear a singer in a blues song with an undercurrent of violence say the numbers "thirty-two twenty" it's probably a reference to this (or rather a pistol chambered for this): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.32-20_Winchester. But unless you are a serious gun enthusiast you probably don't immediately associate that sequence of numbers with that referents whenever you hear it regardless of context.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 2:15 pm

    All right. I think some people have quite sensibly advocated giving the eyesight measure as a single number; not only does that eliminate the (apparent only) difference between the US and metric systems but makes more sense for the idea of measuring visual acuity: i.e. 20/20 = 1, 20/200 = 0.1, 20/10 = 2, etc. I'd certainly go for that. The (virtual) distance does matter but infinity is the most sensible standard and, I always assumed, is that actually employed today.

    In the context of guns, I immediately observe that 'thirty aught six' is immediately recognised by a lot more than gun enthusiasts, but other xx-xx sequences aren't. Is it just (historical) frequency? I assume no one today would pronounce the year 3006 that way, but we have hardly any reason to talk of years that far ahead.

    1521 I think is that; I'd at first assumed it was something Swedish-specific. I guess that would be nearly as good a candidate for 'when the middle ages ended' as the other dates, but again giving one date is silly unless an arbitrary demarcation has to be drawn; for England 1485 is clearly the best date for that, but I don't know if the rest of Europe has anything comparable.

  24. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 2:30 pm

    I find the rhyme useless for the opposite reason, because I'm never quite sure that it wasn't 1493 when Columbus sailed the deep blue sea. But presented with the date, I know what happened in it.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 2:40 pm

    "In the context of guns, I immediately observe that 'thirty aught six' is immediately recognised by a lot more than gun enthusiasts" — I have the distinct feeling that, once again, this is nation specific. The only two calibres that I would immediately association with firearms are .22 and .303 — "30 aught six" would be completely meaningless. The "aught" would convey nothing at all to a British speaker in this context, as (a) we know the word as "ought", and (b) the only meanings most would associate with "ought" are (1) duty, and (2) "something" (the latter only in dialect).

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 3:26 pm

    The "thirty aught six" cartridge was first adopted by the U.S. Army back in the year nineteen aught six, at a time when plenty of speakers (at least in AmEng) might refer to the year that way. For an archaism to survive in a fixed phrase doesn't seem all that unusual. The U.S. Army eventually abandoned .30 caliber ammo at around the same time the British Army abandoned .303 caliber (sorry, "calibre") and for the same reason — the perceived need for uniformity with their metric-system-loving NATO allies, which thus leveled "dialect differences" between different English-speaking societies, although the I suppose more regionalized market for personal/sporting/hunting weapons has been more tolerant of retaining non-metricated ammunition.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 4:10 pm

    Although "aught" has almost completely disappeared from British English (cf. « 1822 M. Edgeworth Frank: Sequel III. 143 It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher 'aught' and all Oxford scholars call it 'nought' »), we do still have "naught", which we differentiate from "nought" even though they have the same underlying meaning — nothing. So we might say "He does his best at noughts and crosses, but it always comes to naught". So "nought" is the cipher zero, while "naught" is the non-numeric nothing.

  28. David Morris said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 5:48 pm

    > Sadly, the Inquisition followed.

    Nobody expected that! (And half the readers of this thread won't understand that.)

    With hindsight, we should have seen 2020 coming.

    It's not an expression I would use (either literally or figuratively) in real life, but I recognise it and would use it in blog comments.

    The end of the Middle Ages was a series of events stretching from approx 1453 to 1517. Surely we can't pin it to one particular event.

  29. Thomas Rees said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 6:05 pm

    Chas Belov: Presumbly "Republic of Two Nations" is for "Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów", which is a fancy way of saying Poland/Lithuania.
    For me, 1648 is the Peace of Westphalia and end of the Thirty Years' War.

  30. monscampus said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 6:11 pm

    Rhymes might be useless or not, but it's a no-brainer to find a rhyme for "2" in English. Not quite so easy to rhyme 1492 in other languages, though.

    @Chas Belov
    1648 was the year the Thirty Years' War ended with the Peace of Westphalia, a terribly important date for the continent of Europe. It was more a less a world war, excluding English speaking nations. In the peace treaty the parties agreed on 'cuius regio, cuius religio', which had a huge impact on the distribution of the confessions in what is now called Germany. Catholics flocked to the southern parts, Protestants to the North. History is important after all.

    1521 was already mentioned – not really Swedish-specific, as Luther was German and was called to the Diet of Worms (not funny), where he declared, "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders!" (Here I stand, I can do no other!" which is often quoted even today.) This dramatic event led to the Great Peasants' Revolt (Bauernkrieg) and ended in the Thirty Years' War.

    I don't know where you're from, Chas, but it must be quite some distance away?

    @Timothy Rowe
    "Everybody is, of course American. Everybody who is anybody, at least; the rest of us don't count."

    Not being anybody and not counting, I fully agree with you. Events that happened outside the anglosphere don't seem to exist?

  31. monscampus said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 6:20 pm

    @Thomas Rees
    "For me, 1648 is the Peace of Westphalia and end of the Thirty Years' War."

    You beat me to it! What could have been more important?

  32. monscampus said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    Sorry… "Cuius regio, *eius* religio"!

  33. cameron said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 7:02 pm

    1648 and the Peace of Westphalia marked the end of both the 30 Years War and the 80 Years War (when hostilities flared up again in 1619, it was part of the broader conflagration.)

    While the English speaking countries weren't part of the 30 Years War, strictly speaking, the English Civil War was raging at the same time, and can very much be thought of as part of the continent-wide Wars of Religion.

  34. Anthony said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    My copy of "1066 and All That" is the first New York printing, 1931. I imagine some readers of this blog read it in their youth.

  35. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 28, 2020 @ 9:23 pm

    The choice of 1930 as a significant year surprises me, because I view the 1929 stock market crash in the U.S. as being the beginning of the Great Depression. I think that was what I learned in school, but my father also talked about the way the crash changed his life.

  36. random observer said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    I am glad someone else wondered about 1930. For a second I thought I was the only one.

    Perhaps it is one of those minor generational changes in how education is delivered? I am 49 and I also always had 1929 and the stock market crash in my head as the start of the depression. At one time I could have recounted more nuances about the series of events, but in this context of memorable dates, it always started at 1929.

  37. Rodger C said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 12:03 pm

    I have the impression that 1930 was when people really started realizing that This Is a Thing, not some glitch that only affected millionaires.

  38. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 29, 2020 @ 3:06 pm

    @Doug et al:

    Sorry to disappoint you, but 1521 was drilled into our head for Sweden-specific reasons: it marks Sweden's final secession from the Union of Kalmar (which united it with Denmark and Norway), and the start of the long and transformative reign of Gustav Vasa. Our textbooks took it as the end of the Middle Ages as far as Scandinavia was concerned.

  39. TOM DAVIDSON said,

    June 30, 2020 @ 12:44 pm

    Lest those of us who study China forget:
    1911, the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China

  40. Frans said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    In context 1930 might be about parrot fever?

  41. Stephen said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:21 am

    "The choice of 1930 as a significant year surprises me, because I view the 1929 stock market crash in the U.S."

    Me also.

    "The U.S. Army eventually abandoned .30 caliber ammo at around the same time the British Army abandoned .303 caliber (sorry, "calibre") and for the same reason — the perceived need for uniformity with their metric-system-loving NATO allies"

    Well I cant see why metric loving countries would be especially in favour of a 0.3 inch diameter cartridge.

    Belgium & the UK had been working on a 7x43mm (0.280 inch) cartridge as NATO had agreed in principle that some sort of intermediate cartridge was the right way to go.

    The US Army having been part of that agreement then insisted on a cartridge as powerful as the 30-06, and what they developed was a 0.3 in cartridge.

    The rest of NATO went along with this (as part of an agreement that all of NATO would use the same rifle – reneged on by the US), but the name is in metric, 7.62×51mm NATO

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 6:40 pm

    And the other standard 'NATO' caliber for individual rifles, 5.56mm, is a metricated .22, isn't it?

  43. Chas Belov said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    @Thomas Rees and @monscampus: Thank you.

    Yes, I am quite a ways from Westphalia, in sunny California.

  44. Stephen said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 1:54 pm

    @Andrew Usher

    Yes. It was derived from the .223 Remington.

  45. Thomas Rees said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    @Chas Belov:

    Not so far from Westphalia; I'm in California too!

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment