The Uh-Ohs

What should we call the last decade?

Less than two weeks remain in the first decade of the new millennium, and we still can’t decide what to call it. Some decade-in-review features go with “the aughts.” Others have proposed “the 2000s,” “the ‘00s,” the “double zeros,” the “double ohs,” or the “noughties.” (This last one has actually caught on in Britain.) Slate’s music critic, Jody Rosen, prefers “the Beyoncés.” How has this issue been resolved in past centuries?

It hasn’t been. History books, newspapers, and works of fiction have generally avoided naming the decade that began in 1900. But the most common terms include the aughts (also spelled oughts) and the noughts—a logical extension of the fact that Americans living at the turn of the century referred to individual years as “aughts,” meaning zero, as in “nineteen aught one,” “nineteen aught two,” etc. The earliest reference to the noughts in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1904, when a theater critic wrote, “In the ‘seventies … Demon King and Fairy Queen … were familiar and popular things. But to satirise them now, in the ‘noughts … is to shoot at a target long since removed.” The first reference to the aughts in a major newspaper didn’t come until 1933, when the Chicago Tribune called the first 10 years of the century the “Naughty Aughts.” It would seem that our predecessors confronted the same dilemma we confront now: Nothing sounds quite right. They were more likely to go with “the first decade of the century” or the “turn of the century” than a pithier term.

Prior to the 20th century, no one really cared about this problem. In fact, it wasn’t common for English speakers to refer to decades in groups—like “the ‘40s” or “the ‘50s”—until the mid- to late 19th century. The earliest example of such decade labeling available in the OED is from an 1853 issue of the New York-based magazine Littell’s Living Age. The magazine notes that men born in the “the seventies” of the previous century were dying at the fastest rates, while death notices for men born in “the sixties” were more scarce.

The custom of treating each decade as a coherent period of time indicating a particular cultural moment didn’t occur till the self-proclaimed “Roaring ‘20s.” Although the 1890s are sometimes called the “Gay ‘90s” or the “Naughty ‘90s,” the decade didn’t actually earn this nickname until the 1920s. Since then, decades have been associated with particular events and trends—the ‘40s with World War II, the ‘50s with the nuclear family, the ‘60s with the sexual revolution—but usually only after the fact.

Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and Ben Zimmer of the University of Pennsylvania.

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