Name That Decade

Can we please agree on what era it is we’re living in?

The precise midpoint of the 21st century’s first decade will arrive on Jan. 1. As I write, that’s five days away. You’d think by now the English-speaking world would have given this decade a name. Back in the early 1980s, the New York Times tried to pre-empt all future uncertainty by pronouncing it the “ohs.” But nobody bit. Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Association, told Harry Wessel of the Orlando Sentinel that a consensus term would start to jell before the end of 1999. More than a year later, Andy Bowers of National Public Radio (and now, Slate) was still taking suggestions. Four additional years have passed since then.Half the 21st century’s first decade is gone and still no one knows what to call it.

The most logical candidate is a term often used to describe the first decade of the 20th century: the “aughts.” But despite heavy promotion from journalists and others, it’s never caught on. (It must have struck most folks as too archaic—note my compulsion to surround it with quotation marks—or perhaps too precious.) In 1996, Barbara Walraff of the Atlantic reported in her “Word Court” column that there was much talk of calling the coming decade the “double-ohs.” That never caught on, either. Scott Pederson, a self-described “entrepreneur,” somehow managed to get a trademark on “Naughty Aughties,” which is even more creaky than the “aughts,” and he’s been promoting that term energetically ever since. “Become an official licensee of Naughty Aughties®,” he invites visitors to his Web site, “and capitalize on this once in a century licensing opportunity.” Strike three.

By not coming up with a name, society has created a serious rhetorical problem that spills over into the social sciences. It’s a problem very much like that of the blind man who tries to size up an elephant in the famous parable. Because there is no name for the present decade, people seeking to describe the spirit of the times often resort to substituting the name of the entire century (or, in extreme cases, the entire millenium). This is pompous and stupid. Some people would go further and say that measuring time as a progression of decades, each with an individual identity, is pompous and stupid. I don’t go that far. I can live with the oversimplification inherent in using a phrase like “the ‘60s” to describe the political and cultural tumult that characterized the last few years of that decade, or “the ‘20s” to describe the reckless stock investments and giddy lifestyles of the wealthy that would end with the stock market crash and the Great Depression. I’m even ready to characterize the current decade as an era when the United States came under attack from Islamist terrorists and responded (not always wisely) by waging war in the Middle East.

But to refer to these as challenges of the 21st century presumes that we know a lot more about what will happen during the next 95 years than we really do. Imagine somebody attempting to define the 20th century in January 1905. He would know nothing about the rise of Soviet communism and German fascism, and therefore nothing about the butchery of Stalin and Hitler. He’d know nothing about mass production of the automobile. He would never have heard of Albert Einstein or his theory of relativity. He might resist having his home wired for electricity, out of the common fear that it was more dangerous than gaslight. He would likely consider the United States to be a lesser world power than Great Britain and France. He’d have no idea that the airplane would soon become an instrument of war and, eventually, a vehicle commonly used for ocean crossings. He would never have listened to a radio, or watched television, or gone to a movie theater and heard the actors speak. If he visited Philadelphia, he’d be dazzled by its wealth and sophistication. He would, in short, have none of the information he needed to describe accurately the coming century.

He might give you a decent description of the aughts. But he’d have to know what to call them. Interestingly, he might demonstrate the same difficulty avoiding the phrase “20th century” that we currently show avoiding the phrase “21st century.” That’s because (at least according to some historians) the term “aughts” was mainly a retrospective term applied after that decade was over. Assuming that’s true, there’s no reason we should make the same mistake twice.