By Zach Hagadone
Because it’s Latin, the phrase annus horribilis sounds ancient, but it’s not. In scattered use beginning in the 1980s, it didn’t come to prominence until Queen Elizabeth II used it in her Christmas message of 1992, noting a disastrous fire at Windsor Castle and the divorces of two of her princeling sons.
It means “year or horrors” and is a play on the much older phrase annus mirabilis, meaning “year of wonders” from John Dryden’s poem of 1666 of the same name. (And if you know anything about English history, 1666 was when most of London burned down and the Black Plague soon after swept the country.)
But you know what, 410 CE, when the Goths sacked Rome, was an annus horribilis; so was damn near every year in the 1300s, from Asia to Europe; and, for Indigenous peoples of the Americas, damn near every year from 1492 to present. We’ve had more anni horribles than not, to be frank (and for the Franks, theirs would have been 287-288 CE, when Caesar Maximian forced their mass surrender into the Roman Empire). That’s to say nothing of 1861, 1914, 1929, 1939, 1941, 2001, 2008, 2016, etc., etc.
Regardless, there are many headlines today applying the moniker annus horribilis to 2020 and, for sure, it has been a doozy. No need to recount the horribilis of this annus. We all know what happened. More interesting is the benchmarking process that seems hardwired into our brains, which even comes up with these ideas of “good years” and “bad years” in the first place.
“Years” don’t exist. We made them up. Same with “decades,” “centuries” and “millennia”; “eras,” “ages” and “epochs.” There’s no such thing as “time” out there in the universe — at least not the diachronic, linear, lickety-split way we conceive of it. Albert Einstein showed us that much.
No, this idea of years — “new” and “old” — is a complete fiction, rooted in the fact that we know we’re all going to die, sooner or later, and we have the great luxury of enough self awareness to notice the progressive decay of ourselves as we succumb to the entropy of the universe and are ripped apart into atoms, whence we came — a.k.a., “age.”
The abject, bowel-quaking horror that this evokes in almost every person is why we have these conventions of marking time — as well as existential philosophy — and it’s really one of the central things that makes us human. No other species, as far as we know, has yearbooks with which to look back on and mutter about how fat/bald (or both) they’ve become. No doubt, I have furniture that will outlast me. I know this because I have been an avid collector of antiques for most of my 40 years. I also know this because the fact that stuff is more durable than human lives is why archeology is a thing.
As the great French historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “The obstinate presence of the past greedily and steadily swallows up the fragile lifetime of men.” By that, I think, he meant we all — or most of us, anway — get forgotten. We’re what Braudel called “stagnant history” — the history of how everyday people live and have lived their everyday lives for millennia — “all rural life, that is 80 to 90% of the world’s population, belongs to it for the most part.”
That’s us, friends.
But, no matter who (or when) we are, we establish elaborate and ever-evolving systems of figuring out where we are in space at any given “moment” — and those systems have evolved. The whole “A.D./B.C.” convention didn’t come into widespread use until the 800s. Long before that, time-keeping really formed one of the original sciences, and its history goes back at least to the Neolithic, when the first rude forms of calendar-making have been found. I wager that even before then, “we” were looking up at the sky and trying to figure out why the stars move and seasons change with them, and what it means for “us.” Back then, I can assure you, we didn’t count the years in our lives, but the life in our years.
But “we” aren’t those people and, again as Braudel wrote, “Whether it favours him or not, the calendar is man’s master.”
Hence we persist in ringing in another “new year,” because we must — and because we don’t.
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