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The Primes: Finally, a reasonable name for the decade

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 14, 2008

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.


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Comments

Tom Warhover October 1, 2008 | 1:20 p.m.

Prime may be primo but Oh-Ohs more accurate, if the recent events on Wall Street and Washington continue to play out.

(Report Comment)
Greg T. Spielberg October 2, 2008 | 2:58 p.m.

Very true, very true. Or as William Safire wrote, "the Owes."

Phil Corbett at the New York Times mentions in an e-mail that "a parallel gap exists" with talking about temperatures.

Let's make this the next advanced reporting project and give Primes some legs.

(Report Comment)
Emily Sussman October 2, 2008 | 3:31 p.m.

I thought I had heard the term before as applied to our generation, but I just Googled it and didn't come up with anything immediate. So congrats on being the first...
EWS

(Report Comment)
Paul Hagey October 3, 2008 | 5:38 a.m.

The movement out of the Missouri Journalism School: naming the 00s.
Think of the branding!
I'm down,

Prime.

A second on the Advanced Reporting Project suggestion.

(Report Comment)
Ryan Guerra May 17, 2009 | 7:52 a.m.

I don't want to be boastful, but I have the most media coverage naming the decades 00s and 10s, the Unies and Decies respectively. We are planning a New Year's Eve cruise to celebrate the End of the 00s and the Beginning of the 10s. We also are making a documentary. Check out my blog at www.theunies.com/blog

(Report Comment)
Harrison November 22, 2009 | 10:59 p.m.

This decade has been terribly naughty. It has been riddled with problems on Wall Street (accounting scandals, ponzi schemes, housing bubble) The political scene hasn't looked much better. Visit this decade's website http://www.naughtyaughties.com

(Report Comment)
Randy Frushour December 20, 2009 | 3:50 p.m.

I don't want to be rude but for his above lines comment, by Ryan and not to have some cultural showdown, because I like the name Unies if on some occasion we would say our Unies decade referring to our first decade, which this is not it's our 201st, but how are we supposed to read his written moniker 00's? Unies? or what say Unies 0's? 00's reads zeros period . He is slipping (my word) this suggestion in around the web at posts about the story of the decade name and if we don't bring it to his attention he may believe we are ignorant when seems there and here he at least contradicts himself calling the Unies 00's (zeroes) or is he really saying 00's "Unies?" Well maybe he's ignoring the priorities of a world expanding information-wise for humans, and if though not so seriously. Professionally I just don't want to appear stupid.
I vote(d) Unies as name for the very first decade 201 decades ago. We have four characters that 20 O's (ZerOes)accounts for evenly not one or nine or any numbers between. Nothing else does. This is a NO BRAINER. Coming at you Ryan. Best of Luck.

(Report Comment)
Randy Frushour December 20, 2009 | 4:18 p.m.

FOLLOW UP - As I grow ten years older and watch read more of the journalists post this storied "decade name" topic gathering they also get a better vibe giving a hundred to one references about the name, I call Zeroes, with defeatist excusing because so and so or other newspaper writer or blogger thought this or that and wow it's easy to go with this over that path but likely now with time it buries all these Editors and Writers as this story has become as big as the Y2K in pop culture. Maybe far bigger. Ha. For short so nobody gets toes stepped on for someone to be unable to refer to zero in this world screams of insecurity. ZERO AND Zeroes is a fact only mathematically not to be taken personal. And the real fact with opposing Greg's comment that "Zero in positive-integer system that steadily increases in value, and the Gregorian calendar starts at one, not zero" side rails the very riddle question which isn't as he states but describes because there was no year zero I suggest to begin our count with one, rather and not ignore the very intellectual point of . concern as he does. His inference "sure, the decade’s numerical distinction is its prolific goose eggs, but a new millennium is not a reset button" also brings me to ask who said we need for our evolving or survival the fore said? THIS IS THE HURDLE. GET OVER IT. HATE IT AND ADMIT IT. BUT ACCEPT IT. IT'S "ALPHANUMERICAL LEXICOGRAPHICAL ORDINAL CODE." Argue that if you will please. Write it and say it 20 0's, 00's, ZEROS OR O's (OH'S).

(Report Comment)
Maggie LaNoue December 31, 2009 | 8:31 a.m.

This past decade could properly be called the TwentiOs. There is a facebook fan page for the name, and a logo. The logo is a Cheerio. The naming convention will also work in previous and future centuries if you read the info on the page. Search on Facebook for TwentiOs.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Feinberg December 31, 2009 | 11:05 a.m.

At the end of 2010 I think we should refer to the decade as the "we generation" or "wii" generation because we are all here connected either on the www or facebook or twitter or blogs, etc.

(Report Comment)
mike emma November 23, 2010 | 8:02 p.m.

I don't want to be boastful http://www.mybbphones.com

(Report Comment)

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