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Nameless Decades

Remember when decades used to have names? The Thirties, the Seventies.

According to the naming conventions of the twentieth century, we should be in the the late Teens right now. But I’ve heard absolutely no reference to this term. And I think I’m in the vanishingly minority of people who refer to the previous decade as the Aughts or Naughts.

I have three theories as to why the last two decades have had no agreed-upon title.

The first is grammatical. The obscurity and ambiguity of how to spell and pronounce nought/naught/ought/aught led people to give up and simply say “the two-thousands” instead, even though this sounds confusingly like it should refer to the twenty-first century (or even the third millennium) as a whole. And then we just fell out of the habit of referring to the current decade in any way at all.

The second is, well, a bit more eschatological. The very idea that a decade can have a name, and even a personality of sorts, is itself a product of the nineteenth century, when each decade began to have a century’s worth of events, innovation, and “progress,” and we were all ramping up for the millenarian twentieth century, otherwise known as the end times.

Well, the end times have come and gone, and now we’re adrift. (Honestly, who seriously believed we were going to make it past the year 2000 alive? I sure didn’t. It’s been a continual shock to me that I’ve had nearly nineteen years of bonus life I hadn’t been planning on. That’s probably why I’ve spent most of it in a stunned daze, aimlessly goofing around on the Internet.)

So (according to this theory) it just seems naïve to us to persist in this antiquated convention of naming each decade: endlessly discussing its traits and blemishes, and speculating about when each one really started and ended. (The Sixties began, for example, with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan of course — but did it end at Altamont, or Kent State, or the Manson murders, or Nixon’s resignation, or the fall of Saigon?)

My third theory is that for most of the last two decades (if not before), each year has had a decade’s worth of events, innovation, and “progress,” so perhaps a decade has gradually become simply too broad and baggy a designation to have much value anymore.

But “anymore” is a tricky word. Who knows what’s ahead. Maybe we’ve always been adrift. But names, even fanciful and misleading names, can be a comfort. In fact, names are often all we have. So when we refrain from naming something, it’s a puzzle that demands some sort of explanation.