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Decadal Dismay

Puzzled enquiries and arguments about what you call the first decade of the next century have been appearing in various online and print forums for some time now.

This has been exercising the minds of the British public relations consultancy QBO as well, because they need to refer to the coming decade in advertising campaigns and were literally lost for words. So they did what every organisation in Britain now does when they need an answer to a troubling question: they commissioned a poll.

The results were about as strange as you might expect from such an exercise. Some 33% of those questioned said they favoured the zeroes; in second place was the oh-ohs and third place was occupied by the earlies. There were also small pockets of support for my own favourite, the naughties, as well as for the more idiosyncratic coinages of the beginnings and the peacefuls. However, these turn out not to be examples of terms that people are actually using, or even of new words that were created on the fly during questioning, but of choices that people made from a list given them by the interviewers.

Hardly riveting conclusions, you may say, the almost inevitable result of applying the principle of the focus group to language. Frothy stuff on another level, too: after all, we have managed to get through the first decades of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries without a word for them, so why should one be needed now? (The option of not calling the decade anything was unsurprisingly left out of the QBO survey.) If a word is needed you can be sure one will appear, possibly something surprising that will add to the language.

One option that was seriously suggested in alt.usage.english some time ago was the rather odd-sounding the oughts or the aughts. Ought was indeed at one time used for zero. It was an uneducated form of nought, from the mistaken belief that a nought was actually an ought. It was still common in the nineteenth century (you may recall Mr Micawber’s famous dictum, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”) and in short forms of years in the first decade of that century (“ought eight” for 1808). But it doesn’t ever seem to have been applied to the decade. As the word is now defunct in this sense in any case, it hardly seems appropriate to resurrect it (though we could try the noughts, another option seemingly left out of the survey).

What is so troubling about this failure to grasp the linguistic nettle is that somebody will force us to go through the whole sad business again in about ten years’ time, since English lacks a word for the next decade as well. The teens, perhaps, or the oncers?

But we do seem to have settled how we should say the next few years. Perhaps under the premature influence of Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have mostly decided to say that year as two thousand and one. The proportion of us which prefers twenty oh one is very small, according to some ad-hoc listening I’ve been doing, even though it might seem to be the logical choice after the pattern of previous centuries. It has been suggested that usage is going to shift on this one: as we get well into the ... the whatevers ... and become used to years with noughts in them, we shall start to hear, and use, twenty oh three and their kin.

Those of us whose ears are permanently cocked for such shifts in usage will be listening hard.

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Page created 31 Jul 1999