It’s time to name the decade. All the others have default monikers based on their numerals, and the first three years of the teens escaped with name by association. The most popular term to refer to 2000-2009 is the “aughts.” Thankfully there hasn’t been a consensus, though. “Aughts” conjures Victorian images of women in balloon-frame dresses and men who treat three-piece suits like uniforms.
Instead of an agreed-upon name, this decade tends to be referred to as the “turn of the century, “dawn of the century” or “beginning of a new millennium.” Decades are, of course, arbitrarily agreed-upon sets of years pinned together to sell compilation CDs. Without a nice moniker rooted in numerals — ’90s, ’80s — Alice Deejay, Panjabi MC and Baby Boy Da Prince can’t be tied together, packaged and sold.
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An established name for our decade does more than help the 504 Boyz earn royalties from “Wobble Wobble.” It provides the span some tail wind in forging an identity. It compartmentalizes the period’s contents, bringing events, trends and patterns together into a coherent unit. No one wants his or her lunch spread out all over the table. Consider the identities of 20th-century decades:
- Teens: World War I
- Twenties: Roaring Twenties
- Thirties: Great Depression
- Forties: World War II
- Fifties: Cold War
- Sixties: Civil Rights
- Seventies: Vietnam
- Eighties: Excess
- Nineties: Dot.coms
These identities can be negotiated, but each been generally codified through standardized repetition in textbooks and print media. In popular histories, the ’30s are always framed with the Great Depression, and even though I only know five things about the ’20s, I know they roared. There are no cookies to help recall a quick impression of those unnamed aughts, though. Despite McKinley's assassination, a two-term president, the Wright brothers, the Model T and the Spanish-American War, I don’t have a clear or unified picture of the decade’s identity. I would argue that this is due solely to naming issues. Sociologist Michael Schudson writes, “ … the only memories that remain are those culturally institutionalized” — and a powerful way to build cultural strength is through collective language.
Without a name, it is difficult to give weight to concepts and ideas. There’s no entry point. And measuring time in sets of 10 years is a fairly new, American idea. Two journalists, Frederick Lewis Allen and Walter Lippmann, gave cultural traction to the use of decades as measuring sticks. In “The Strange History of the Decade,” Jason Scott Smith writes, “Allen’s breezy, popular study of the 1920s … is without a doubt, the most influential text in propagating the idea of the decade in American culture.” In his 1931 book, "Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s," Allen begins, “If time were suddenly to turn back to the earliest days of the Post- war Decade … ” and his second-to-last line is “What was to come in the nineteen-thirties?” Lippmann wrote, in a column for the New York Herald Tribune, "The post-war era of the Nineteen Twenties is over and done." Both Lippmann and Allen used the convenient boundaries of World War I and the Great Depression to investigate American culture; Lippman was highly critical of “the character of … government” and Allen wrote mainly on the culture. Marketers and capitalists, Smith notes, propelled the language of decades by creating ’20s trivia games and writing service journalism pieces about what to expect in the ’30s.
The problem with zeros
The battle over our decade’s name has not been as productive. In 1986, Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times tossed around “Aughties, Nauts, Zeros, Zips” and the “fretful Oh-Ohs.” He finally proposed the “Ohs,” but as Slate’s Timothy Noah wrote 20 years later, “nobody bit.” During an National Public Radio segment, Noah mentions “Naughty Aughties” (thought of and trademarked but not by him), “the Double Ohs,” and callers throw in “Zilches” and, alluding to tennis, “the Lovies.”
There are a few fundamental problems in sourcing a neutral number to name our decade. It doesn’t make sense in a positive-integer system that steadily increases in value, and the Gregorian calendar starts at one, not zero. Sure, the decade’s numerical distinction is its prolific goose eggs, but a new millennium is not a reset button. The national and local media’s lack of consensus is a rejection of outdated, silly and, generally, bad, names — not a name.
Across the board, journalists avoid language derived from zero in referring to the decade. Stacey Woelfel, KOMU news directorsays, “Often in broadcast writing, it’s best to avoid awkward situations like this, so we probably just try to write around it most of the time.” Chip Price of the Columbia Daily Tribune says the decade may “gain definition as we move on.” Jack Stokes of the Associated Press quotes his “stylebook team,” who say, “We don’t name decades, but rather use those that evolve through common usage: Roaring Twenties, for example. Hence, no policy.”
Name that decade
The name of our decade doesn’t need to be based on nil. It should recognize the years’ primacy in the century, or millennium, but not harness zero’s linguistic weakness and value anomaly. This decade should be called the Primes. Aesthetically, it looks good enough, plus it’s positive — numerically and by definition.
Primes, Teens, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Primes, Teens, Twenties …
Prime, as a noun, comes from the Latin “prima hora”; “first hour,” according to Merriam-Webster. “ … the first hour of the day usually considered 6 a.m. or the hour of sunrise,” “the earliest stage.” As an adjective: “first in order of time or development.” As a noun, prime is also “the chief or best individual part” and as an adjective is related to “primitive.”
Prime’s roots are beautiful and majestic. “The first hour of sunrise.” They are accurate. “The earliest stage.” They recognize that “first” and “one” don’t always go hand-in-hand. And, since the second decade starts with tens, not ones, there is some room to establish an understandable predecessor. Primes implicitly couples the ever-present hubris of modernity — “the chief or best” — with the humble knowledge that our first 10 years of this millennium will ultimately be seen as primitive.
I’m fine with that, as long as we get our name. One that’s positive, not nil.
Greg T. Spielberg is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and a former assistant city editor for the Columbia Missourian.