The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

A Decade Without a Name?

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Everyone’s looking back at the last ten years…whatever you want to call them:

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, cannot escape the question: What should we call this decade? We have the ’80s, the ’90s, and … the “twenty hundreds”?

Sheidlower has faced the query, often posed in panicky tones, at cocktail parties, in letters to the editor and in phone calls to his word-saturated office. The anxiety began in the mid-’90s, then stretched into the early whatchamacallits — Aughts? — and has reached fever pitch as the decade winds to a close.

With days remaining until the ’10s begin, Sheidlower has bad news for those searching for the answer. “For years and years, people have been seeking a solution,” he said. “Well, it never happened. We don’t have a name for the decade. Sorry.”

More here from Michael S. Rosenwald.

Hey, don’t say we didn’t try. There is no lack of ideas, to be sure, on what to call these zeroed years: the ohs, the ays, the units, the singles, the zips, the bits, the ovals, the infants. (I do like the aughts myself, however quaint it sounds.) But the thing with language–and with English especially–is that no one person, not even the esteemed editor of the OED, can enforce the trends or the rules of a language; there has to be a widely shared consensus among those who communicate with it. In the battle between the descriptivists (tell it like it is) and proscriptivists (tell it like it should be), we always fall somewhere in the murky middle. We want to respect “The Rules,” but we also respect the patterns that we absorb from our peers, our communities, and (especially) those forms of media that reinforce our identities as social beings.

So why couldn’t we agree on a name for the 00s? It would be nice to think that we have finally come to an understanding that periods of time are rarely cohesive, and that ten consecutive revolutions around the sun need not be set apart in history from the ten that came before and after. But the most likely explanation is very simple:

“We have never had a handy way of characterizing the first 10 numbers in a sequence of zero to 100,” said [linguist Dennis] Baron. “We have seen the best minds in the world try to find a solution, but the kids aren’t dancing to it.”

Add to that the fact that we were so occupied with the turn of a new millennium that evaluating our place in time in terms of a mere decade seemed kind of trite. And as we finally arrive at the end, we’re too absorbed in the lingo that technology has inculcated within us, too busy googling and sexting and friending and unfriending (and, oh yeah, blogging) to offer a sincere gesture to the passage of time. Really, who needs to get with the new decade? Technologically, we’ve advanced a hundred years if we’ve advanced ten.

Still, because times do tend to get meaning culturally imposed on them, I suspect we will one day settle on a name for the 00s. I object to the notion that as soon as 2010 gets here (in a few hours as of this posting, although it’s already arrived in other parts of the planet), the 00s must remain forever nameless. I don’t think either Sheidlower or Rosenwald is directly suggesting that in the article, but it’s easy to get the impression. Lest we forget, many are the wars that are waged without agreed-upon names until after the peace treaties have been signed. (Frankly, the names of the conflicts the US is currently involved in leave a lot to be desired. Posterity, anyone?) So it will go with the period commencing January 1, 2000 and concluding December 31, 2009.

My suggestion?

This decade shall be forever known as The Anons. That’s right, The Anonymous Decade. Because to name something out of namelessness is still to name it. Happy new year everyone.

Written by cwmote

December 31, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Posted in language

Tagged with , , ,

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