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, 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 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.


  1. John, congratulations on four years of bringing clarity to the masses. I'm sure you know not to hold your breath waiting for them to see the light on the naming of decades, centuries, and millennia. I myself have all but given up on getting this point through to all the premature celebrants. I've even seen people recite your argument quite clearly — and conclude from it that wrong is right. Ah, me.

    But I'll bet the drinks are better at our parties — the ones that celebrate the real transitions.

  2. I agree with what you say about the millennium actually beginning in 2001. Technically, you are correct.

    But I long ago concluded that -- similar to your observations about popular usage of words and phrases -- it is an argument you can never win.

  3. Centuries and decades don't have to be counted from the same moments. A century is counted from the birth of Christ, so there is a year 0 to be taken into account. But a decade is just "a period of ten years" (OED), there is no year zero there, so I am less convinced that the twenties, for example, should not include the year 1920. Centuries may be counted from 1 to 100, but decades run from 0 to 9, not 1 to 10. In any case, I suspect this is yet another example of language considered as a branch of logic, which it isn't, so if you and I resolutely refused to toast the new millenium on January 1st, 2000, I'm afraid it's possible that we were wrong, not everyone else.

    Congratulations on your anniversary, whether we are now entering YDS Year 4 or 5.

  4. I hesitate to challenge people who are smarter than me ... but you know people weren't really celebrating "a new millennium" in 2000. They were celebrating the fact that the thousands place in the year was changing from 1 to 2. "Millennium" was just how they referred to it (incorrectly, but hey).

    Also, +1 to John Ross. "The Eighties" does not include 19-Ninety. Yes, it's arbitrary, but that is the, dare I say, descriptivist reading.

  5. Even Frank Rich got it wrong in his column this morning, claiming that we are seeing the end of a decade. Oh, I forgot. The Times probably got rid of its copy editors.

  6. I've always been of the mindset that we should just surrender and let time periods begin at the "zeroes." Otherwise we set ourselves up for a logical dilemma: did today, for instance, begin at midnight? Or not until 1 AM? What about 12:01? Or 12:00.01? Or.....

    The only common-language sense of counting that seems to be strictly accurate is the common acceptance that a child born today will celebrate its FIRST birthday one year from now. (Of course, that's an anniversary, not a time period, so that may be the mental distinction.)

  7. Two sets of numbers are involved here. The third millennium of the Common Era, as well as the twenty-first century, didn't begin until 2001, but the Two Thousands (whether you mean the 10-year, 100-year, or 1000-year period) began in 2000. In Italian this is all simple: the quattrocento is the 1400s, namely 1400-1499, and it's only when translating to other languages that you have to remember that this is almost-but-not-quite the fifteenth century.

    (Culturally, the Sixties began when JFK was shot in '63 and continued until Nixon resigned in '72.)

  8. The Sixties began with the opening of the Space Race and the orbital success of Sputnik on October 4, 1957.

    The Sixties ended when the Vietnam war ended on April 30, 1975.

    (Richard M. Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, BTW.)

  9. Correction:
    Nixon announced his intention to resign the presidency at noon on August 9, 1974 on the evening of August 8; he actually tendered the formal letter of resignation to Henry Kissinger on Friday, August 9, 1974 and formally resigned at noon on the 9th. The Sixties dragged on until the Vietnam War was over the next year.

  10. I've always been partial to referring to this first decade of this century to the "Naughty Aughties..."

  11. I like the "noughts" for this reason, described in today's Wall Street Journal:

    "Since the end of 1999, stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange have lost an average of 0.5% a year thanks to the twin bear markets this decade."

    Mark Conner

  12. Like last time, it will soon be known simply as the turn of the century.

  13. Isn't the fixation on the end of the millennium a bit like the entomological fallacy? It seems like a bit of peevology to focus on a definition someone created a millenium and a half ago, long before the introduction of zero. In fact, in astronomical usage, there is a year 0. It's the one that most people think of as 1 BCE, and it simplifies calculations.

    As another poster said, Y2K was the result of a programming optimization that seemed good at the time, got copied by a lot of people even after the problems were pointed out, and would have had effects in the year 2000 that ranged from the comical to the potentially disasterous if it hadn't been fixed.

    As a software developer, I find zero origin counting to be just as natural as one origin counting, and using it avoids having to do adjustments in lots of different places, each of which is easy to overlook.

    John Roth

  14. Thank you for pointing out that A.D. comes before the year, not following it.The writers for the History Channel, who ought to know better, get that wrong every time, but it is, after all, television and therefore good writing is not a possibility. Yes, it takes 10 years to make a decade. Frank Rich is an obnoxous, arrogant little man: pay him no mind. It's the Solstice and from now on, things look better and better. Even writing.....

  15. Unfortunately, AP has given exactly the opposite advice:

    Q. AP is running a lot of material about the end of the decade. But is it really the end of an official decade? (Every year ends a decade.) I remember a great deal of discussion in 2000 about whether it was the beginning of the new century. I've been told the "decade" ends Dec. 31, 2010. I can't find anything on this in the Stylebook. What is your take?
    A. The new millennium started with 2000, so the decade is complete at the end of 2009.

  16. This, sadly, is precisely the sort of thing one has come to expect of the AP Stylebook.