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Our Nameless Decade: What “Aught” We Call It?

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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.jpgBen 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

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19 Responses to “Our Nameless Decade: What “Aught” We Call It?”
  1. TC says:

    I say “the aughts.” Everyone I know (that bothers) does. I thought everyone did. I had no idea this was a matter of debate.

  2. Ozzie Maland says:

    I like “the Jugger-Noughts” as in this OED cite:

    1883 Standard 3 Sept. 4/6 (Stanf.) Practical politics, that Revolutionary Juggernaut that grinds us all under its car.

    The ultra-warrior bloc has been grinding the whole world under its car this decade.

    Aloha ~~~ Ozzie Maland ~~~ San Diego

  3. Jeffery Ewener says:

    The reason we don’t have a word for the current decade is that we haven’t yet needed one. It’s the 21st century, the new millennium, whatever. In 4 years’ time, in 2011, suddenly we will need a word, in order to distinguish the decade we will then be in from the decade, this one, which we will have just finished.

    Ha! And they laughed when I learned the future perfect tense!

  4. Ryan Guerra says:

    The Unies! The years between 0 & 9 are only one digit and uni means one. Unicycle, unicorn. It also is a pre-fix that means to make one. University is a bunch of colleges. Uniformity. This word works for the weather, ages and numbers. For example, “Temperatures are getting cold, in the low to mid-unies.” or “I’m in my thirties and my little sister is in her unies” or “Kobe Bryant’s rebound average fell to the upper-unies” Check out three videos on you tube: Good Morning Columbia, WLTX, New York City

  5. Revise It doesn’t matter how one approaches wikipedia on a or, the “20 zeros decade name” contest (winner), regardless it’s only important to lexicographers, they do not and will not accept an edit from my camp. The chief editor there confronted me online once and suggested I don’t edit over top of wiki comments as because I have my own website. I tried today again with a local members loggin account to be of help but they smelled my prints all over it I suppose. All I suggested was they clarify the matter as naming or titling the decade alha-numerically and of course we’re speaking of the first decade of this 21st century. I even admited, “to date, there seems to be more popular votes as for the span of years being years 2000 through 2009″ while, technically and literally these years 2001 through 2010 are the historical years of menttion as because there was no year zero AD, BC or otherwise and no previous decade had nine years as they once suggested may have been. I am releasing in 2010, if all goes well a series of united states epochs rising literature and will first publish this matter no doubt. If they get more dignified with their final editing of at the least here “this decade name issue” I’ll leave them alone or elsewise I am going to give them the “call to carpet” treatment big time. There are whole blogs and websites even that request followers to petition in to dismantle their disgraced project. They like Yahoo! just need new people in the lead.

  6. Ryan Guerra says:

    Don’t forget about the Twenty-Unies and the Twenty-Decies. The years between 2010 through 2019 is called the Decies. Deci means ten such as decimal place.

  7. Naught & Aught both imply zero and are the only numerically and numonically correct choices.

    When listening to the radio…. now playing music of the EightTIES, NineTIES, aughTIES and today… it is the only one from a marketing standpoint that makes sense.

  8. Ryan Guerra says:

    Well, Biscayne Lady Yacht Charters is going to support a New Year’s Eve Cruise dedicated to the end of the Unies and the beginning of the Decies.

    So good luck with your name but I will be celebrating a New Year’s Cruise instyle.

    Biscayne Lady

  9. There is no word such as “decies”. Sorry Ryan, and the Unies in our decade and all decades except the 1st one 2000 years ago are are pre-fixed by or with zeroes, which was and is the concern. Here are some words the dictionary suggests.
    Deices Decius
    Decius Deuces
    De ices Dices
    De-ices Decize
    Deicers Dexies
    Deuces DCIS
    Darcies Fecies
    Dices ECIES
    Decides Desis
    Deciles Duces
    Decimes Ducis
    Dexies Deioces
    DCIS Deciet
    Decius’ Delices
    Daces Deise
    Duces Deci
    De icers Dies
    De-icers De Es
    Deicer’s Deci-
    Deicers’
    Deuce’s
    Deuces’
    Darcies’
    Defies
    Demies
    Denies
    Dice’s
    Dicers
    Dices’
    Deuses
    Deeses
    Duci’s
    Delices
    Decease
    Devices
    Deceives
    Deciders
    Decile’s
    Deciles’
    Decime’s

  10. Tony says:

    The Oze.

  11. mujahidul says:

    I think we should call it, 2star or dual-star decade..

    Explanation:
    2 represent 2000
    star is short for “start”
    therefore start decade of year 2000

  12. Joe says:

    I can only report what I hear,and as ugly as it sounds, I only hear “Oh-somthing”.
    Not very commercial sounding, the Oh Somthings.

  13. Accurate Chronometer says:

    1.The 100th year of the 20th Century and last year of the 2nd Millennium was definitely and indisputably 2000.

    2.The 1st year of the first decade of the 21st Century and of the 3rd Millennium was definitely and indisputably 2001 – obviously. The clue is in the number ’1′.

    3.The 10th and last year of the first decade of the 21st century will be 2010 – obviously. The clue is in the number ’10′.

    4.The last day of the first decade of the 21st century and 3rd millennium will definitely and indisputably be December 31st 2010.

    There is an ongoing concerted and fraudulent effort by the BBC and other major media players to deny these facts for cynical commercial branding and packaging purposes. This is an abuse of their position of information stream control domination.

    Clear thinkers will ignore them and respect and express true and honest chronological facts and conventions.

    1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,and one more to go…
    This survey clearly shows it so:

    http://management.about.com/gi/pages/poll.htm?linkback=http%3A%2F%2Fmanagement.about.com%2Fb%2F2009%2F11%2F25%2Fwhen-does-the-decade-really-end.htm&poll_id=9160570248&poll=2

  14. Common Sense says:

    Be serious – whilst you are technically correct are you telling me that most people (if you asked them) would include 1990 in the “eighties” ? We’ve all shifted by one year – get over it!

    Happy New Year!

  15. paula says:

    It should be called the teenies

  16. Ryan Guerra says:

    Randy, thanks for your input.

    Funny you should take a strong stance against the unies and the decies. Take a look at wikipedia’s page on Numerical Prefix.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerical_prefix

    Both uni and deci is mentioned.

  17. [...] 2009 and “the double ohs” decade closed, many reflected on our world’s progress in the last year. While browsing [...]

  18. Carlo says:

    It would really be nice if we could have a common pronoun to substitute for ‘he’ or ‘she’.

  19. Joe says:

    I’ve been reading about the (a/o)ught and n(a/o)ught out of curiosity, which therefore makes me dislike the last suggestion of the “aughts.” I haven’t ever heard it here, but I believe it should be the noughts, or zeros, rather than naughts (nothings) or aughts (anythings.)

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