The U53 bug?

It’s New Year’s Eve! And even more incredibly, an entire decade of the new millennium seems to have sneaked past. At times like these, we just can’t help getting caught up in numbers, and date related numbers are already causing trouble in Norway.

A few days ago the U53 bug struck, or perhaps that should be W53 in English. The problem is that 2009 has 53 weeks (uker in Norwegian), a circumstance that arises at regular intervals but which people rarely notice. It occurs when both the first and last weeks of a year have four or more days.

I only became aware of the phenomenon a few days ago when I noticed an item in the news that 53-week years cause domestic strife, since they disrupt the child-sharing schedules of some divorced parents.

I didn’t quite grasp this at first, since it seemed to me that if you have alternating custody it doesn’t matter how the weeks are numbered, but apparently there are people with formalized legal agreements that define the alternation as odd or even-numbered weeks – and 2009 ends with week 53 and 2010 starts as usual in week 1, on January 4th – the transition week can’t be 53 on one year’s calendar and 1 on the next.

In an interview in the previous 53-week year (2004), the head of Norway’s traditional almanac pointed out that the 53rd also caused trouble for weekly shift-workers. A quick look confirms his statement that not all calendar makers are aware of the official ISO regulations for how to number weeks. And his passing remark about computer programs having trouble with week 53 had 2009 ramifications.

On December 28th parts of the city of Tønsberg were plunged into darkness as the U53 bug struck, and power company Skagerak Elektro turned off the power when its computers thought the year ended after week 52. “We have a control system for local street lighting and the computer system didn’t have week 53 filled in,” an official told the local newspaper.

Numerical regulations also extend to the language, and Norway’s Language Council (Språkrådet) has decreed that the correct expression for next year is 2010 – that is, two thousand and ten, and not 20-10; twenty-ten. The Council admits that this will have little or no effect on what in fact becomes common parlance, but it is something that state broadcaster NRK and other formal officialdom must take into consideration.

I was rather surprised to see Sylfest Lomheim, the Council’s director and somewhat of a language celeb, argue that the decision was in line with how one described the first century of a new millennium, and what ‘all European languages’ were doing; claiming that the French, English, German, Dutch and Danes were going the ‘two thousand’ route.

Sylfest, all I can say is that the Battle of Hastings took place in 10-66, and I have heard the BBC saying 20-10 already. And the Beeb is surely the height of English?

Anyway, the Norwegian Prime Minister has already toed the line, and when the King gives his New Year’s address, we shall likely see if royalty follows suit.


4 responses to “The U53 bug?

  1. On another pedantic issue concerning the way one pronounces numbers, British English often varies from American English in whether or not there should be a spoken “and” after the hundred when reading out a three-digit number. Does the Språkrådet legislate one way or the other on this issue?

  2. I don’t know about all European languages.

    In Dutch the year is Twothousand ten, and when spoken doesn’t have the “and” that English has ( which seems more normal to me than omitting it in American English. Probably a throwback to the influence of German/Dutch on the development there ).

    As for the BBC being the “height of English”. In my opinion, the English on the website and the TV channel has gone downhill over the past year or so.
    Many spelling errors, mis-pronounciations and unnatural grammar.

    The one that bugs me ( although I admit it could be grammatically correct ) is the use of the country when referring to a player within it, ie “the France goalkeeper”. It sounds just plain wrong. In natural speech, I would say “the French goalkeeper”. After all, if he plays for France, ergo he must be French !

    The other one that I have seen/heard is “do the math”. So very incorrect for British English ( and probably in general ), since it is mathematics, and not mathematic, from which it is derived.

    Still, I’m probably just being very pedantic since I am English but based out of the UK, so I am sure I am more sensitive to such things.

    Nice blog, by the way…

    • Jonathan Tisdall

      It only occurred to me later that twothousand ten, without the and, was a third option. But I think people are going to say twenty-ten.

      I stick by the BBC, and would blame ‘do the math’ on the US, though I have no idea if that is true. Wouldn’t the British have started saying do the maths if they started it?

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