Year: A name or a number?

When we look at other units of time, there are a whole mix of names and counting systems. So is assigning a number to a year the best methodology for defining or specifying a year?

Much as I dislike astrology and have no time for it, I like the Chinese way of naming the year (as we do with days and months) instead of numbering them…

Time: What’s in a name?

So the new year is upon us. 2015! That’s 2015 years since the birth of Jesus Christ (or at least 2015 years since when people first thought he was born).

But is assigning a number to a year the best methodology for defining or specifying a year? When we look at other units of time, there are a whole mix of names and counting systems.

The year number is a continuous counter. It’s unlike the time of the day which counts seconds minutes and hours from the start of the sidereal day arbitrarily defined as midnight…the time when the sun is 180 degrees from zenith. And the time itself (here as the clock sees it) repeats each day.

Different lengths of time – different systems. Let’s take a stroll through!


Numbers are not normally given to days. Days are given a names which are largely derived from gods of some ilk or the other. And every 7 days the naming cycle repeats with a weekly frequency.


Weeks are numbered from 1 to 52 denoting their position within the year…though ironically week numbers are not commonly used except in accounting and tax circles were the year starts and ends in April and not January from which the weeks are numbered!

Months, years, and beyond…

But between weeks and years in terms of length are months where we go back to a naming rather than numbering convention. This repeats every 12 months that are in the year which as we’ve already discussed is numbered…as is the century or even the millennium it’s within.

Breaks from the norm

But there are some exceptions within the above general conventions.

Muslims begin their year count from 622 AD.

Within the geophysical sciences (and possibly within other disciplines) the Julian Day Number (JDN) is often used. These real numbers which refer to the number (and fraction) of a day since midday on 1 January 4713 BC (reference Wikipedia).

A similar system is used in computer programming languages and file formats such as netcdf.

These are still continuous counters, and ‘suffer’ the problem of negativity. For example, positive number are denoted AD (Anno Domini – year of our Lord). Preceding these numbers are the years before Christ, thoughtfully names, BC. But I defy you to find a coin or a letter or something with a date stamp of 200 BC, for example! The year counting system only works from the positive, or latter side, of the count start point. Despite the prophecies of the coming of Christ!

But there are other methods of identifying years. For example, car registration plates on the UK have a sequence of numbers and letters from which the year of registration can be derived if you’re familiar with the system.

My first motorbike had an “E” plate. It was registered in 1989. One of my previous cars had “02” plates (registered in 2002 simple enough) but my last car, registered in (August) 2005 had “55” plates.

It makes sense if you know the UK car registration system!

A personal preference: 12 hours, 12 months and 12 years

And here’s where I return from my apparent digression.

I like the idea of the Chinese year where years are named rather than counted.

Chinese years
Image courtesy:

Granted, the Chinese year doesn’t start in January and end in December and it also seems to be based on 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac (as a scientist and an amateur observational astronomer I have no time for astrology) but naming years gives me a better sense of time’s passage and where I am in it.

A naming convention, be it on a weekly or a yearly cycle, is circular whereas a continuous count is linear. There’s an extension into the future; numbers are infinite and so is time. And that makes me feel pretty insignificant!

Yeah… Maybe I just want to feel a little more important and that I have my place in time.!

I mentioned that I don’t like astrology. Doesn’t stop me from skimming the [nonsensical] astrology page in the paper (if only to scrawl “you think this is the future? See for yourself with time travel!” and jot a link to time2timetravel and leave the free paper on the train!). But I might look at “my” sign. It’s (apparently) an identity. There’s some sort of connection.

OK. That’s fluffy talk. Especially when some may consider that according to my zodiacal signage, I’d be a virgin pig! And it’s true enough that I can just as easily have my place to the n-th decimal point on a time line (you know, like my birthday! πŸ˜‰ ) …but…well…there’s no accounting for the sentience of the human spirit!

So however you call or mark or treat the new year, I wish you all a very very happy one!


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Author: Paul Wandason

I love astronomy and science fiction, but I love my family more. So I love time travel too!

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