A Date with Destiny

-You there, boy! What date is it today!?

-Today!? Why it’s 05/08/16!!

-Wait… so is it August or May?

Why do Americans write the date differently from the rest of the world? Not that I’m really complaining, but, well, it can be annoyingly confusing at times, especially in cases like above where the day of the month is the 12th or lower. Of course I’m just used to the European format, but I do also think it’s more logical, moving from the smallest unit to the largest.

Of course one obvious answer is that the date formats we use reflect the way we speak. In British English one usually says the eighth of May, and in American English, May eighth. But then that simply begs another question, why do we say the dates differently? No-one really seems to know, but as often, I suspect that many citizens of the early years of the United States wanted to differentiate themselves from the British linguistically.

Interestingly though, while dd/mm/yy is the most common format around the world, there are still quite a few varieties in use:

Date_format_by_country_(new).png

Legend here

It seems that we need some kind of system to arrange simple things like time, and it’s not hugely important which one we use as long as it gives us some kind of order. The term used to describe the process of organising dates is an unusual one: endianness. Adapted from the jargon of computer-memory storage, it refers to how information is sequenced in terms of size. The most common method for representing the date is little-endian: going from smallest to largest. Putting the year first, as in Japan, would be big-endian, and the American format is middle-endian.

The term originally comes from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which two factions of Lilliputians, the Big-endians and the Little-endians, go to war over which end of a soft-boiled egg should be opened first. Swift was probably satirising our need to impose a system on so many basic aspects of life, even if that order is an arbitrary one, which is very much how things are with the way we refer to dates now. It doesn’t really matter which format we use, as long as we stick to it, but boy is it annoying if someone dares to use another format!

4 thoughts on “A Date with Destiny

  1. I’m a big-endian supporter! I try to use YYYY-MM-DD (2016-12-30) in official correspondence, since it’s logical, sortable, and you avoid the “is it the 1st of May or the 6th of January?” questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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