Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug’s Seventh Year

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2004

Today is Doug’s sixth birthday. As I tucked him into bed a few hours ago, I congratulated him on beginning his seventh year on the planet. He said, “No, my sixth year.” I said no, his sixth birthday meant he’d finished living six years, just like his first birthday meant he’d finished living one year.

He got the picture, but it was interesting that he got thrown off by hearing the word seventh on his sixth birthday. I used to have the same kind of confusion, only I never even realized I was confused until a couple of years ago, when for no particular reason it occurred to me that when you said that so-and-so accomplished such-and-such in his nth year, it really meant that he did it when he was (n-1) years old.

Or did it? All the time I’d been hearing the phrasing in [someone]’s nth year, I’d kind of translated it as “when they were n years old,” without thinking about it. Maybe everyone else did, too. But would this pattern hold true when n = 1? I think most parents would interpret something like In his first year, Johnny learned to crawl, got 2 teeth, and said “Mama” and “Dada” to mean that he did these things before his first birthday, not after it, when he was one year old. In that case, I have the same kind of question as I did regarding one troop vs. 100 troops: for what positive integer j does in one’s jth year mean “when one is (j-1) years old,” while in one’s (j+1)th year means “when one is (j+1) years old”?

2 Responses to “Doug’s Seventh Year”

  1. Anonymous said

    In 1994, I got a couple of terriers pups (brothers). They’ll be 10 on September 2 and are considered old dogs now. I only mention that because they are, I guess you could say, my kids.

    Anyway, I hope Doug had a great birthday. Did he have a party? Was Adam having fun too or was he a bit jealous? I hope Doug got some nifty present and blew out all “six” candles on his cake. Maybe blowing out candles represents the fact the past years are all gone and shall never return. I never understood the expression “many happy returns.” Just what does that mean?

    Happy 6th Doug and many happy birthdays to come!

    Trumpit

  2. Anonymous said

    Hmmm.. this is interesting. One thing I realized growing up is that the way we express age can and does vary with culture. Both of my parents are from India and for years, when asked how old someone was, they would respond with something like “24, 23 complete,” meaning as you’ve noted, that they were in their 24th year of life, having completed 23 years. So if you ask an Indian person (preferably from India in the not-so-distant past) how old they are you’ll get an answer that removes the ambiguity — “I am 20 years old, having completed 19 years.”

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