Our Nameless Decade: What “Aught” We Call It?
Last week when I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio about notable new words like locavore, some listeners called in to ask about words that seem to be missing from English. One such lexical gap that came up is the absence of a non-gendered singular third-person pronoun to replace “he or she,” as I discussed in my last column. Another listener raised the question, why don’t we have a suitable name for the first decade of the 21st century? It’s a curious situation: here we are at the end of 2007, and we still lack a commonly accepted term for the current decade. Very often English speakers deal with this quandary by employing the strategy of “no-naming” (a term that sociolinguists use to describe the avoidance of address terms when one is unsure what to call one’s interlocutor). You can hear this kind of no-naming when a radio station announces that it plays “hits from the ’80s, ’90s… and today!” But that’s hardly a satisfying solution. Surely we can do better in the next two years before the decade runs out?
Callers to the WPR show had some creative suggestions: “the nillies,” “the deccies,” and my personal favorite, “the preteens.” But as is the case with the genderless pronoun, it seems unlikely that a brand-new term will suddenly catch on with the public at large, especially when it’s so late in the game. So let’s review some of the current choices to see which one might have the best chance of becoming a permanent name for the decade as the 21st century moves out of adolescence.
First there’s “the 2000s,” favored by many government and media sources. The main difficulty with “the 2000s” is ambiguity: it could just as easily refer to the current century, or the current millennium. It’s most ambiguous when pronounced as “the two thousands,” though one could conceivably also read it as “the twenty hundreds.” That was the suggestion made by reference editor Sol Steinmetz back in 1989 when the decade-naming problem was on the distant horizon; his reasoning was that “the twenty hundreds” makes sense on analogy with “the nineteen hundreds,” the most common name for the first decade of the 20th century. “The twenty hundreds” might have worked if we had gotten used to reading the first two digits of the year as “twenty” rather than “two thousand,” as in “twenty oh seven” rather than “two thousand (and) seven” for 2007. (It’s been suggested that a main reason for this prevailing usage is influence from the title of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, which has always been pronounced as “two thousand and one” instead of “twenty oh one.”) So with “the 2000s” read as “the two thousands,” it doesn’t distinguish itself as the name of a decade.
Abbreviating “the 2000s” as “the ’00s” only makes matters worse, since it’s entirely unclear how the two-digit form should be pronounced. Some might suggest reading that as “the (double) zeros” or “the (double) ohs,” or even “the oh-ohs.” “The double-ohs” might be the most popular of these possibilities, and it was put forth as a prime candidate for the name of the decade back in 1996 in Barbara Walraff’s “Word Court” column in the Atlantic. One could argue that “the double-ohs” has some of the romance of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, in which elite secrent agents like “007″ are known as “double 0s.” “Double zeros” or “oh-ohs” might be more appropriate for observers with a pessimistic or even nihilistic view of the decade.
In 1999, a BBC article anointed “the noughties” as a frontrunner in the decade-naming sweepstakes, heading what it called “the admittedly sorry list of contenders.” But the Beeb acknowledged that “the ‘noughties’ still sounds like a word East End villains might use to describe imprisonable activities – or even worse a polite, middle-class code for the reproductive organs.” Still, “the noughties” has found supporters in Britain and Australia, frequently appearing in publications like The Guardian and The Australian. It’s never caught on in the United States, perhaps because “nought” isn’t a well-known term for ‘zero’ here, and also perhaps because it seems a bit… naughty.
Finally there’s “the aughts,” a common term in the United States for the first decade of the 20th century. That has a decidedly old-fashioned ring to it now, since “aught” is no more common than “nought” as a name for ‘zero.’ If any English speakers have been going around referring to 2007 as “twenty aught seven,” the way that 1907 was called “nineteen aught seven,” they’re being decidedly ironic about it. But that sense of irony might ultimately work in favor of “the aughts,” if a tongue-in-cheek “retro” term can eventually be embraced in mainstream usage. There are some indications that this retro-ness might work once we get a little distance on the current decade. Even in 2007, dispensers of instant nostalgia were already evaluating “the mid-aughts” (as in this assertion by Entertainment Weekly: “Overpacked, obscure pop culture riffs are like pirate jokes — very mid-aughts and hopefully on the decline.”)
As Timothy Noah of Slate has pointed out, in the early 20th century “the aughts” only really caught on in retrospect, well after the decade was over. The way things are heading, we’ll have to wait another decade or two before we finally reach a consensus on our troublingly nameless preteen years.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here