What did people in the 1900s call the decade in which they lived?

Dear Cecil:

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?

Cecil replies:

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. 1900s — 5 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 it’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 ten years and haven’t produced anything that can be said without embarrassment. And people think “the year 2000 problem” refers to computers! Little do they know. If Bill Clinton wants to build a bridge to the 21st century, here’s where he’d better start.

Naming the first decade: Still flailing

Dear Cecil:

This begs the question of how to refer to 2000-2009 as a unit, but there is a cool way to reference the individual years. In the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the characters refer to dates in the early 1800s as “the year zero,” “the year three,” etc. This has a certain ring to it. I am certain O’Brian’s references are historically correct in all respects because I have heard him speak on NPR. No one with an Oxbridge accent like his could be wrong about anything.

Dear Cecil:

The puzzle of how to refer to the opening years of the next century is pretty easy. Just look to the metric system, specifically the K in kilo. Piece of cake to write checks — September 21, 2K (or KK), for instance. Later in the century just add another digit, 2K7 for 2007. A graduate would be class of 2K, 2K1, 2K2, etc. [Further mildly amusing speculation deleted.] However, the ones who will enjoy this system most are conservative southerners, because 1,004 years from now will be the year KKK.

Dear Cecil:

The natural name to me would be “the singles.”

Dear Cecil:

Perhaps a reason why the first decade should remain nameless can be found in the old Hawaiian custom of waiting until a baby reaches one year before celebrating the event. One hesitates to assign a name too early as it may put an unwanted spin on all that follows. By leaving that first decade unnamed, do we not foster the hope of a Wondrous Age to come?

Maybe, but I’ve pretty much given up hope of a Wondrous Name. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going upstairs for a little nap. Wake me in 2010.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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