John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just want it to be over

One of my readers suggests that I address the naming of the decade that is passing away, since no one seems to have agreed on a term. Fortunately, Christopher Beam has written on the subject at Slate.com, with capable assistance from Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer.

The aughts has had a certain popularity, the noughts has done well in Britain, and there are the inevitable cute coinages, such as Slate’s the Uh-Ohs. I rather like that last one, but basically, I just don’t care.

This naming of decades fosters shallow thinking. The Fifties? Ike and men wearing hats. But if you read David Halberstam’s excellent book on the decade, you discover that it was much more complex. The Sixties? The Sixties has become a code word in the culture wars, and the way you speak of it identifies which side you’re on. The Seventies were more than cocaine and regrettable fashions, hard as it is to get past the latter.

And then there’s this: Mr. Beam opens his article by writing, “Less than two weeks remain in the first decade of the new millennium. ...” Oh dear. The tiresome thing about writing on language and usage is that you have to plow the same field over and over and over.

Remember Y2K?

The current millennium began on January 1, 2001. Those were nice parties you had in 2000, but you were a year early. There having been no Year Zero, the first millennium of the common era began in A.D. 1 and did not exhaust its thousand years until the end of A.D. 1000. The second began on January 1, 1001, and ended in 2000. The current decade, similarly, began on January 1, 2001, and will not end until midnight on December 31, 2010.

I’m sorry if this spoils your sense of fitness in the way numbers are grouped, but a decade has ten years, a century a hundred, a millennium a thousand — and you have been giving short weight.


An additional calendrical note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of You Don’t Say. From its debut on Baltimoresun.com on December 20, 2005, to the present I’ve had the satisfaction of writing for a growing corps of readers. You have applauded me, you have argued with me, and — bless your hearts — you have corrected me. Thank you all.