As we bid farewell to the strangely nameless first decade of the 21st century, University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron takes a look back at the lingo that enlivened the last ten years.
We prepared for the first decade of the new millennium of the Common Era by wondering what to call it: the 0's? the 0-0's? the double zeroes, the aughts, naughts or naughties?
We wound up calling it nothing, but not because nothing happened — in some ways, too much happened too quickly, and the decade filled up with new words and phrases we'd just as soon forget. But because no one came up with a good name for the ten-year period that's about to expire, I'm calling it the decade with no name.
The twentieth century had the same problem, with names for all its decades except the first — everything from the Roaring 20s to the 60s (if you remember them, you weren't really there). At the end there were the 90s, the last year of which we spent counting down to 2000 — we assumed that something big was about to happen, so we began obsessing over millennium bug and Y2K.
We're still trying to come up with a phrase that characterizes our decade, but we're not having much luck. We could call it the world-didn't-end decade, because the world didn't end on Jan. 1, 2000 (you can come down from the trees now, unless you're calling it the-world-might-still-end-in-2012 decade — if it does end then, it won't matter that your decade has twelve years in it).
While the 0's or 00's never gained traction as decade names, there's another number word that aptly characterizes the decade, 9/11. The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought us first responders, let's roll, homeland security, invisible weapons of mass destruction, and threat levels keyed to the colors of the rainbow. Our second response to 9/11, the war in Iraq, brought us, not the mission accomplished that President Bush proclaimed, but roadside bombs, which the army tried to neutralize by assigning them letters of the alphabet, not SNAFU, whose meaning can't be spelled out in a family blog, but the even more obscene IED, for 'improvised explosive device.' But we aren't calling the decade the 9/11s, and even though our third response brought us the war in Afghanistan, we can't very well call it the we-didn't-learn-anything-from-the-British-or-the-Russian-fiascoes-in-Afghanistan decade.
It's also been the digital decade, or more particularly, the decade of Google, Facebook, and Twitter (email, it turns out, is so last century). Words like blog and tweet were chosen as words of the year during the period, but while the language of texts continued to be criticized as misspelled and grammarless, no sooner did the New Oxford American Dictionary pick unfriend as its word of the year for 2009 than complaints began rolling in that defriend was the correct form of the word that means 'to remove someone from a friend list on a social networking site.' Oxford picked unfriend because googling shows that it's much more common than defriend (1.85 million hits for unfriend, only 225,000 for defriend), but most people ignore the evidence and insist they use defriend instead. It seems that correctness is alive and well in the dc8 uv txt, hahaha, but no one's calling this the grammatical decade.
It was also the decade ruined by greed: the stock market hit an all-time high and immediately crashed. The housing bubble burst, and we learned more about subprime mortgages, toxic assets, and bailouts than we ever wanted to know. We started the new century with a decade that was doing a heckuva job, and we wound up saving a decade that was too big to fail.
We're about to enter "the teens," leaving behind a decade where a lot of bad things happened, and so if we satirize the ten years gone by, maybe that's just a way of trying to stay sane. But we're also leaving a decade where in many cases we seem to have lost our way, and language all too often lost its meaning. If that's the case, then good riddance to a decade that doesn't even deserve a name.
Maybe when we get far enough away from it, we'll look back on the decade with no name with nostalgia, the way people used to look back on the great Depression. There we'll be, at the end of the terrible teens, the boring twenties, or if pollution levels keep rising, the dirty thirties, wishing that the times we were living in weren't so interesting after all.
Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar.Click here to read other articles by Dennis Baron