21st century's first decade is slipping away without leaving its name

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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

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 now reached fever pitch as the decade winds to a close.

With six 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."

Dictionary editors, linguists and even radio DJs say we have entered a semantic black hole in which the English language failed to produce a term for the outgoing decade in the same way it has failed to find a catchy moniker for your former in-laws. (Out-laws never stuck.) The language is stumped. The Zeroes? The Ohs? The Oh-Ohs? Help!

Our mouths seem destined to stumble. On New Year's Eve, in the moments before the ball drops in Times Square, Ryan Seacrest will smile into the cameras and take on the challenge of summing up the years that will be remembered for a terrorist attack on American soil, a near-depression, the election of the nation's first black president and Tiger Woods's contingent of girlfriends. "Let's count down now as the -- what? -- slips away."

Good luck filling that blank, Ryan.

Word search

The Two Thousands? The Aughties?

Surely this is a philological crisis. A language that has a word for "a soft fleecy material made from linen, usually by scraping" -- lint, according to Merriam-Webster's -- cannot possibly exist past Dec. 31, 2009, without a name for the preceding 10 years, right? Wrong. ("The state of being mistaken or incorrect.")

"It's really kind of amusing to me," said Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois linguist and curator of a Web site that decodes language in the news. "People think if we don't have anything to call the decade, that maybe we will forget it, that it will be some kind of orphan decade, that it won't exist. But it's simply not true."

For evidence, see: the romantic partner of an older adult who is not married. The phenomenon exists; there just isn't a good, specific word for it.

"If you are 60 years old, saying 'my girlfriend' sounds stupid," Sheidlower said. " 'Partner' sounds too businesslike or suggests a gay relationship. 'Companion' doesn't sound romantic. The Census Bureau calls it POSSLQ -- persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters. That obviously doesn't work. The fact that there is a need for a word doesn't mean it will arise."

So in the case of the whatchamacallit decade, how did this happen?


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