Accessibility links

Breaking News

Now We're Past the, Uh, First Decade, What Do We Call the Next One?

<!-- IMAGE -->

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're back with Ben Zimmer from the American Dialect Society.

RS: We talked last week about the society's choice for 2009's Word of the Year -- the Twitter-inspired "Tweet" -- and Word of the Decade, "Google." But talking about decades is a whole other story. We'll share some listener comments later in the program.

AA: Decades are easy to name once you reach the twenties. Then come the thirties, the forties and so on. But what about the first two decades of a new century? As Ben Zimmer says, there's no consensus.

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, you can just speak very generally, you could speak about it as 'the first decade of the twenty-first century,' but that doesn't really lend itself to the types of ways of talking about decades that we normally have with the seventies, eighties, nineties. The first decade? That's ... "

RS: "What did we call it when we had the turn to the twentieth century, what did we call it then, in nineteen hundred to nineteen ten?"

AA: "Or eighteen hundred to eighteen ten or seventeen hundred to seventeen ten?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, the whole idea of even talking about decades in this way really only started in the late nineteenth century. We have examples of people talking about the 'eighties' and the 'nineties,' referring to the eighteen eighties or the eighteen nineties, for instance. But they had a similar problem in the first decade of the twentieth century, of not being exactly sure what to call it.

"Very often it was just simply called 'the nineteen hundreds,' although of course that's a bit ambiguous because it could refer to the whole century. But there wasn't really a good term for it back then either. Some people in retrospect have called the decade 'the aughts.'"

AA: "A-U-G-H-T."

BEN ZIMMER: "Right, because you could refer to the name of a year like nineteen-oh-seven as 'aught-seven' but that wasn't really popular at the time. And we saw it coming up again with the first decade of the twenty-first century, where 'aughts,' at least in the United States, seemed to be one of the more popular names for the decade.

"But it always kind of seemed to have a self-conscious or retro type of sound to it if people talked about 'the aughts.' It sounded almost purposefully old-fashioned to say 'Oh, yes, here we are in the mid-aughts or the late-aughts.' So even though in the U.S. at least that was something that some people were using, there was no really consensus term."

AA: "What about now the second decade? What are you predicting or what are you seeing people call it?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, the obvious choices there would be either 'the tens' or 'the teens,' and I think that the teens would be more popular, although technically speaking we might not want to refer to the teens starting until two thousand thirteen -- or twenty thirteen, I'm sorry I should say, since twenty is the way that we'll be starting the names of years starting now in twenty ten. So the years twenty ten, twenty eleven, twenty twelve, maybe those are the preteens. But I think that generally people will use the teens as the decade goes on to refer to that whole decade from twenty ten to twenty nineteen."

RS: Ben Zimmer is executive producer of Some of you who have been listening to us for a long time may remember that we addressed this issue of decade names back in nineteen ninety-nine. We even had a "Name the Next Decade" contest.

AA: We had entries from forty-five countries and, not surprisingly, no clear winner. The single most popular theme was "first decade." But the suggestions ranged from "the zeros" to "the o's," the "double nothings" to "the zilches," the "oh-zone" to the "oh-somethings." We also had suggestions for "cyber decade," "digy ten" (as in "digital technology") and ""

RS: A listener from Nigeria, Chiaka Celestine, suggested calling it the 'decade of great achievement and fulfillment.' "I name it so," she said "because in most countries especially the developing ones, the next decade is seen as the target period for the achievement and fulfillment of lots of things. Take for instance," she added, "the talk of health for all by the year 2000, food for all by the year 2000, Vision 2010 in Nigeria."

AA: Those were suggestions we got at the turn of the century. We'd welcome more comments on what to call twenty ten to twenty nineteen? Are you happy with the tens or the teens, or do you have a better idea?

RS: Go to our Web site at to post your ideas and we'll read them on the air. For now, that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.