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Say Goodbye to the Decade with No Name

As we bid farewell to the strangely nameless first decade of the 21st century, University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron takes a look back at the lingo that enlivened the last ten years.

We prepared for the first decade of the new millennium of the Common Era by wondering what to call it: the 0's? the 0-0's? the double zeroes, the aughts, naughts or naughties?

We wound up calling it nothing, but not because nothing happened — in some ways, too much happened too quickly, and the decade filled up with new words and phrases we'd just as soon forget. But because no one came up with a good name for the ten-year period that's about to expire, I'm calling it the decade with no name.

The twentieth century had the same problem, with names for all its decades except the first — everything from the Roaring 20s to the 60s (if you remember them, you weren't really there). At the end there were the 90s, the last year of which we spent counting down to 2000 — we assumed that something big was about to happen, so we began obsessing over millennium bug and Y2K.

We're still trying to come up with a phrase that characterizes our decade, but we're not having much luck. We could call it the world-didn't-end decade, because the world didn't end on Jan. 1, 2000 (you can come down from the trees now, unless you're calling it the-world-might-still-end-in-2012 decade — if it does end then, it won't matter that your decade has twelve years in it).

While the 0's or 00's never gained traction as decade names, there's another number word that aptly characterizes the decade, 9/11. The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought us first responders, let's roll, homeland security, invisible weapons of mass destruction, and threat levels keyed to the colors of the rainbow. Our second response to 9/11, the war in Iraq, brought us, not the mission accomplished that President Bush proclaimed, but roadside bombs, which the army tried to neutralize by assigning them letters of the alphabet, not SNAFU, whose meaning can't be spelled out in a family blog, but the even more obscene IED, for 'improvised explosive device.' But we aren't calling the decade the 9/11s, and even though our third response brought us the war in Afghanistan, we can't very well call it the we-didn't-learn-anything-from-the-British-or-the-Russian-fiascoes-in-Afghanistan decade.

It's also been the digital decade, or more particularly, the decade of Google, Facebook, and Twitter (email, it turns out, is so last century). Words like blog and tweet were chosen as words of the year during the period, but while the language of texts continued to be criticized as misspelled and grammarless, no sooner did the New Oxford American Dictionary pick unfriend as its word of the year for 2009 than complaints began rolling in that defriend was the correct form of the word that means 'to remove someone from a friend list on a social networking site.' Oxford picked unfriend because googling shows that it's much more common than defriend (1.85 million hits for unfriend, only 225,000 for defriend), but most people ignore the evidence and insist they use defriend instead. It seems that correctness is alive and well in the dc8 uv txt, hahaha, but no one's calling this the grammatical decade.

It was also the decade ruined by greed: the stock market hit an all-time high and immediately crashed. The housing bubble burst, and we learned more about subprime mortgages, toxic assets, and bailouts than we ever wanted to know. We started the new century with a decade that was doing a heckuva job, and we wound up saving a decade that was too big to fail.

We're about to enter "the teens," leaving behind a decade where a lot of bad things happened, and so if we satirize the ten years gone by, maybe that's just a way of trying to stay sane. But we're also leaving a decade where in many cases we seem to have lost our way, and language all too often lost its meaning. If that's the case, then good riddance to a decade that doesn't even deserve a name.

Maybe when we get far enough away from it, we'll look back on the decade with no name with nostalgia, the way people used to look back on the great Depression. There we'll be, at the end of the terrible teens, the boring twenties, or if pollution levels keep rising, the dirty thirties, wishing that the times we were living in weren't so interesting after all.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 18th 2009, 3:50 AM
Comment by: TheBookwright (Guildford United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Duly ReTweeted - bring on the Tenties :-)
Friday December 18th 2009, 6:00 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
Just out of interest, what was the 1910 decade called? The teens? Maybe we should coin a word, and use The Bookwright's suggestion of Tenties!
Friday December 18th 2009, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Waldo G. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
At the risk of sounding stupid, what does 'dc8 uv txt' stand for?
Friday December 18th 2009, 7:38 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Dear (not stupid) Anonymous.
The significance of 'dc8 uv txt' is its presence in an entirely new way of communicating, a new shorthand, currently understood by a number of users of this digital age.
I do not know the language but feel I should learn so as to keep up with much more to come.
There was a time when fax transmissions were unacceptable as a legally binding document. Will the new 'quick written works' one day be legal?
The need to understand is important to me in my daily contact - by texting-
with my granddaughters and sooner that I might expect my three great-grandchildren.
I hope someone will decipher dc8 uv txt for me soon. It might be important.
Friday December 18th 2009, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Zez (Fredericksburg, VA)
It could be called The Eastwood, in honor of Clint and his westerns ("the man with no name").
Friday December 18th 2009, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Michael H. (Buffalo, NY)
I only know this because of my 15 year old: "dc8 uf txt" = "decade of text"
Friday December 18th 2009, 10:36 AM
Comment by: John C.
My first thought for the decade, which ends at the end of next year by some recounts, would be the decade of HOT AIR. That would encompass all the talk on global warming as well as the lack of any substantive political thought beyond manipulation through "hope", as in, well we don't like it now and maybe it will be better if we "change", and "fear", as in, they are out to get us and the world is about to end.

Hot air would include blogging and texting and all kinds of "communication" which seem more like monologues for the former, and like ways to not really talk while giving the illusion of sharing something for the latter. Neither are anywhere close to true communing, yet we tout how much we are in-touch. We seem to have found more and more ways to not really be where we are as we walk and text or find TV "reality" shows so we can see something "real" while not participating. We can include "virtual" meetings in this group of not really being there.

Hot air could also stand for the flames that melted the two monstrous towers in NYC, the plane in Pennsylvania, and one side of the Pentagon. How curious that we have the juxtaposition of the reality that for a time rallied a nation with more and more ways to fake reality so kids are keeping score of how many they killed in the latest video game.

Hot air could also stand for the economic bubble that burst, or as an image of those money managers and bankers, floating over the rest of us in their hot air balloons, paying attention to only the other balloons to see who (like Icarus?) could go higher and highest.... until....
Friday December 18th 2009, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
Verg good, John C. Hot Air does indeed say a lot about this soon departing decade (whether this year or next).
Friday December 18th 2009, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Ed M.
A friend of mine came up with the idea in 2000 of calling this decade the "ohoh's." How right he was.
Friday December 18th 2009, 1:55 PM
Comment by: Ricardo M.
Just a brief note. The decade hasn't ended yet (this decade will not end until December 31, 2010). The period of ten years that we known as decade starts with the year 1 (or 11, 21, 91) and ends with the zero (2000 was the last year of the XX Century). 2011 will be the first year of the second decade of this XXI Century. Ricardo
Friday December 18th 2009, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Thomas M. (Seattle, WA)
The Lost Decade? America lost its way, the respect of other countries, its financial security, its health, its morality, its cultural relevance, its dominance in world affairs, its once-admirable educational system, its....the list could go on forever. It will take a whole decade to get us back on track....
Saturday December 19th 2009, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Ricardo M is correct. But what about "zero"?
A year is not completed until it ends.
Not until the second year of life is one called a one-year-old.
By the same logic his actual life began at zero age.
Therefore, why would the new decade begin only after the first year of the "2000" decade?
Are there two separate logical renderings for the concept of numbering?
Please help me understand this!
Saturday December 19th 2009, 8:26 PM
Comment by: John C.
Let's see if I can create some parallel constructs for Roger Dee

There was no "YEAR ZERO" so the first decade started with YEAR 1 (one). To have a decade one must have 10 year, so the first decade started on the first day of year 1, and included years 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10. So each decade ends after a year that ends in ZERO, ergo, this decade we are in needs to end after 2010.

When we are born, we are beginning our first year and ages are usually given in months, fractions of a year, not "0" years. When that year is up, we are one year old at midnight on the bay before our birthday. In the 2nd year of life we would technically be 1.5 years old halfway between our 1st and 2nd birthdays, even though most people would just say "one year old."

Think of a race and laps. When one is on the 2nd lap of a 2 lap race, one has finished the first, but the race is not over until the finish line is crossed to complete 2 laps.

On 1 January 2010 we are in the 10th year of the decade, but it does not end until the 31st of december of 2010.

We are in the 21st Century even though all the years begin 20... until the last one which will be 2100, the the next century starts.

I hope this helps....
Sunday December 20th 2009, 2:26 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, John C.
I appreciate your taking an interest in my question.
But it still seems as though our first decade of the 21st century should begin with the year 2000.
The Wikipedia was no help at all!
Concepts of time and intervals are far more complicated than one would care to understand.
Monday December 21st 2009, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Laughlines (Seattle, WA)
I really like what John C wrote and his title Decade of HOT AIR. It made me really think about on the past 10 years, possibly the "Delusions of Grandeur Decade"
Monday December 21st 2009, 4:25 PM
Comment by: Paul T. (St. Austell United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Well, according to one fellow the 1970's won't have ended until the end of Dec 1980, and if the decade were nevertheless 10yrs long then it cannot have begun until the end of Dec 1970. So Nov 1970 was back in the sixties according to that gentleman. This decade ends midnight Dec 31 this yea; 2009. Technically it ends in some 'infinitely' miniscule moment, but for the spacetime is not literally infinitely divisible, and so some actual moment in time will be the actual moment of midnight; a moment that with it's passing will mark the end of this decade. In the UK the decade is called the noughties. What the problem in America?

Monday December 21st 2009, 5:22 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Paul T is about the only person I ever knew that understood what I was getting at!
Monday December 21st 2009, 6:24 PM
Comment by: John C.
Hey, one can call any 10 year period a "decade." 1975 through 1984 is a decade. So If one want's to call the 70's - 1970 through 1979 - that is OK with me.

But if one is going back to the beginning of CE (Christian Era) and measuring millennia, for example, then 2001 was the first year of the newest millennium, just as, 0001, and 1001 were the start of those millennia. I will reiterate, there was no year 0.

If you don't mind my slipping into the whole organization around a tentative date for the birth of Jesus, try thinking this way.

The year before Jesus was supposedly born Is 1 BCE, and the year after is 1 CE. Any singular event take place at that ' 'infinitely' miniscule moment ' that Paul T wrote about. So there is no year 0 because the birth happened at that IMM: 'infinitely.... So again, the only way to have 10 years in the first decade CE is to start with 1 and end at 10.

Happy shortest, or longest day of the year!!!
Monday December 21st 2009, 9:57 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, John C, for your erudition.
I agree (and understand) about the millennium concept.
Isn't there some confusion regarding sets, ordinals, and cardinal numbers as well?
Similar confusion sometimes presents itself about the noon hour and when does the "after noon" begin...right on the dot when leaving the 11 o'clock hour.
Sunday January 24th 2010, 11:04 PM
Comment by: nobodyz Susan
Just thought I'd jump in and completely crash the number discussion and name debate.

What about the "Too" (NOT misspelled) decade?

Excellent article that made me laugh and keep laughing! Really enjoyed the dry wit here.
Monday September 12th 2011, 6:12 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
Sometimes what we think of as our named decades really go from the middle to the middle of the traditional decades. The zeitgeist of the 60s really didn't start in 1960 or 61, and didn't end in 1969. Rather the era we think of as the 60s begins around 1965 and goes to around 1974 when Nixon left. In some cases the times do change at the very end of the decade as in the 20s.
Wednesday September 14th 2011, 10:12 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Even after two years since most of the above discussion occurred, I'm still getting a laugh out of it.
I especially liked John C.'s HOT AIR concept!
We think we are so smart: it took the Aztec Civilization to invent the "zero" and yet we're still trying to figure out if "12:00 o'clock" means midnight or noon!

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