August 17, 1999

Forget about agreeing on a numerical name for the next decade

The last decade was the eighties. The present decade is the nineties. The next decade will be the...?

Good question, and there's plenty of possible answers. The USA Today ran a contest soliciting names, and a May 26, 1999 episode of the Today show featured a song that dripped with wannabe decade names:

"There's the zips and the zilches and the double zeroes,
but the kids who'll be born then just may be heroes,
and what kind of hero claims a birthday in the aughts,
or the goose eggs or the nadas or the nothings or the naughts."

So it goes. And I bet we won't use any of them in everyday parlance. Sure, anyone can come up with a name or two billion, but try getting everyone--more like anyone--to use it.

I think that anyone who fights this battle is fighting in quicksand. You won't win, and here's why. We read the phrase "1999" as "nineteen ninety-nine." So if you want to talk about the final two digits in isolation, you've got a ready division point to do that--right before "ninety". And there happens to be a ten-year span, all of whose years have this convenient break point. So if you want to talk about them in toto, you can call them the "nineties". Rube Goldberg couldn't imagine a more efficient machine.

Now, we read--and as far as I have known, have always read--the phrase "2000" as "two-thousand," 2001 as "two-thousand (and) one", and so on. There's no ready breakpoint here that we have for "nineties". The closest is "thousands," which (going out on a limb here) won't refer anytime soon to ten-year spans of time. And suddenly, something like "Twenty naughty aught" is supposed to spread like wildfire. Watch me roll my eyes.

I don't think this problem can be solved by a spontaneous manipulation of the names of numbers. So if English users want a label for the next ten years, they will just have to attach a label that has nothing to do with the names of numbers. We might wind up calling it the Futuramas, or the Gores, or the Szczepanczyks (grin).

Or we could just call it The Decade Without a Name:

(sung to the tune of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name")

"What do we call
The next ten years?
Don't fritter the next decade
On a fool's fears
Enjoy it because
It's not the same
It's the Decade With No Name"