Speaking of the next decade, how did the people who lived in Theodore Roosevelt's America refer to the decade they were going through? I suspect they called it "the 1900s" or "the hundreds"--a natural sequel to "the 1890s" or "the nineties"--but I wasn't around then. They must have called it something, and it seems odd that no record of this has emerged as we approach another double-0 decade. You know everything, Cecil, even about the past. How'd they handle this the last time?
--VCRogers, via AOL
You want to know what they called it? They didn't call it anything. At least nothing short and catchy, unless your idea of short and catchy is "the 1900s," in which case I don't want you writing any soap jingles for me.
It's not that folks a hundred years ago didn't have nicknames for the decades they lived in. The 1890s, for example, were known as the Naughty 90s. You know, because they rode bicycles and stuff.
As far as I can tell, however, the 1900s had no such nickname. Even "the 1900s" was used only infrequently. Either it was a period of global monotony, or else they discovered what we're about to: there is no suitable term, and cumbersome locutions are your only recourse.
I can speak with confidence about this because I've applied technology to the problem. This consisted of running every nickname I could think of through the "search quotations" feature of the electronic Oxford English Dictionary, which has zillions of literary citations of English usage dating back to the time of Ethelred the Unready. Granted the OED is skewed toward British English, but still. Results:
Hundreds, aughts, aughties, naughts, naughties, zeroes, zeds, zips, zilches, ohs, double-Os, nothings, ciphers--no relevant citations.
First decade [of the century]--9 citations.
Opening/first/early years [of the century]--19 citations.
Beginning of the/this century--20 citations.
Turn of the century--38 citations.
Here's a typically convoluted construction: "A popular fashion of the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century." OK, that appeared in 1970. But try these: "In Canada alone in the first decade of this century" (1936). "The opening years of the twentieth century" (1917). "In the first years of the eighteenth century" (1907)--OK, different century, but you see my point.
Is this pathetic or what? In his discussion of this subject years ago Cecil half seriously cited "turn of the century." Now we find that's the default usage, judging from the OED.
At least people are starting to wake up to the fact that we've got a problem. Combing through the data banks I find anxious discussions of the subject in the Atlantic, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, and the Dartmouth ("America's Oldest College Newspaper"). The New York Times has written editorials urging that we call it the "ohs." The ohs. The uh-ohs. Sorry, can't see it.
The Virginian-Pilot advocates the Aughties, on the dubious grounds that we will refer to the year 2006, say, as "twenty-aught-six." The paper credits the term to one J. William Doolittle, who was cited in a 1989 William Safire column. This shows you what passes for investigative prowess at the provincial press these days--Cecil joshingly proposed the Naughty Aughties in 1988. Though if somebody wants to pin it on Doolittle, no beef here.
At any rate, the unignorable fact is that we've been flailing at this for eight years and haven't produced anything that can be said without embarrassment. I'm fairly convinced we never will.
So I think we'd all better lay low, lest the upcoming decade turn out to be memorable. At least "the swinging 60s" is easy to say. But God help us if we have to spend the next 50 years talking about "the fabulous first decade of the 21st century."
Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at email@example.com; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.