For sure, something big will take place at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. Some people will attend worship services. Others will party on land, on sea and in the air. No doubt some computers will crash. And, of course, a specially designed 800-pound Waterford crystal sphere will descend from atop 1 Times Square in New York. But will that mark the start of a new century in a new millennium?
The Post, which has referred to the millennium in at least 1,000 articles this year alone, sometimes says yes. Last month, for instance, Rich Morin, the director of polling here, wrote a farewell column announcing a four-month leave of absence. "Before I depart," he wrote, "I offer these thoughts to guide you until we reconvene in the next millennium." As in the year 2000. Back in March, a front-page story reported on couples who are competing to have the first "millennium baby" -- that is, one born on Jan. 1, 2000. Other articles have discussed a Christian "millennium gathering next year" in Israel; President Clinton's plan to give poor nations "a fresh break financially in the new millennium" by forgiving $5.7 billion of debt; advice on fixing up lawns by the end of this month so that they will be "ready in the new millennium"; and the who's who of celebrities, led by the actor Will Smith, who will take part in Washington's own New Year's Eve party on the Mall, "America's Millennium."
But there have also been other versions of time. An Aug. 26 Metro story described the nation's atomic chronometer at the Naval Observatory, which will mark the beginning of the new year with a "time-ball drop." This was the clincher: "When the ball drops, it will signal merely the year 2000. . . . The ball will be dropped again a year later. Only then will we enter a new millennium." The Aug. 31 Star Watch column started this way: "Arguably the millennium won't begin until Jan. 1, 2001, but much of the public believes it will start Jan. 1, 2000."
All this is driving purists to distraction, who see one date used in news stories of a more scientific bent and another when the news is all about celebrating the new year. "I feel a little bit like Don Quixote," said a reader, "but it just bugs me so much that all the talk about Jan. 1, 2000, being the start of the new millennium has finally put me over the edge." He went on to explain: "When we count from 1 to 10 (10 numbers), we begin with 1 and end with 10. When we count from 101 to 200 (100 numbers), we begin at 101 and end with 200. When we count from 1901 to 2000 (1,000 numbers), we begin with 1901 and end with 2000."
Another reader, noting that "a blanket ban" on references to 2000 as the start of the next millennium is probably impossible at this stage, asked: "Could you at least convince an underburdened editor to assign a story on what life was like during the year zero?"
Still another reader said: "I wish the media would get it right, and at least talk about what's really at work in all the hype we hear. . . . What's really at work is coming almost entirely from the commercial side of our society. The litmus test of that will come in another year, as the hype begins for "Star Studded New Year's" celebrations scheduled for Dec. 31, 2000."
On this one the readers are correct, but they are tilting at windmills. The Post has decreed, as have so many other news organizations, that the popular will must prevail. Myth or no myth, Jan. 1, 2000, is the start of the millennium. As one of my ombudsman colleagues in Spain put it: "In fact, there will be two commemorations: the one by ordinary people and another one by astronomers and scientists." And readers who know how to count.
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