t is not unusual for the New Yorker to pronounce on a subject with the air of an elder whose word closes the debate, though it is still, for my money, the best-written weekly in the English language, notwithstanding its smug, prosperous American liberal stance. But there was a whiff of self-satire about that estimable magazine’s first editorial of the new year in which Rebecca Mead (and how arrogant to have signed leaders!) issued, in an erudite and beautifully written piece, the “ex cathedra” line that the first decade of the 21st century would hereafter be referred to as “ the Aughties”, while covering her back by pretending that the title is still up for grabs – for no Lefty journal can be overtly prescriptive.
The Aughties? To a British ear it is clunking and contrived, suggesting nothing but a pun on “ought”, and thereby ironically to a decade in which good intentions, particularly regarding the ending of wars and climate change, came to nothing. That’s quite good, albeit unintentionally, but the current favourite of the British media is “the Noughties”, which swings the pun the other way, evoking naughtiness, for example in the recent craze for “binge drinking”. But neither of them will really do.
We refer to the first 19 years of the 20th century as “the early nineteen-hundreds”, so why should we not now be living in “the early twenty-hundreds”? It trips off the tongue easily enough, unlike “the early tenhundreds”, by which I have never heard the opening years of the 11th century identified. Interestingly, though, we have already turned our backs on a previous convention, for we refer to, for example, the year 2006 as “two-thousand-andsix”, or, if we want to be all slick and corporate, “two-thousand-six”, whereas we and our forebears spoke of “nineteen-osix.” To say “nineteen hundredand-six” at the time was a fash ionably orotund affectation, bespeaking the defensive pomposity of a superpower in decline; I’m sure there are now US congressmen who refer to “twenty-hundred-and-six” for the same reason.
Now spare a thought for some junior hack, probably now still at school, who will, in nine years’ time, be given the job of putting together a newspaper supplement feature entitled “2020 Vision”, looking forward to the decade ahead, the newest trends in technology, the hottest fashion designers and all the rest of the nonsense. (Let us not assume that print will have died by then; online publication might well implode, as advertisers wake up to the fact that their placements are more easily ignored on the screen than they are on the page, and actually profit them nothing whatever.) To the fifth-former who wants to be a journalist one might say: “Forget it, because this might be you.” But then one might also say: “Go for it, for you might dictate a vernacular convention that will endure for centuries.” We will probably be speaking of “two-thousandnineteen”, and might easily speak thereafter of “two-thousand-twenty” – except that that one underpaid hack will tap into the zeitgeist by employing a pun that refers to perfect eyesight, which everyone wants, and will probably expect, by then, as a right. And if it hasn’t happened, the year 2020 will undoubtedly see a documentary, under the same title, exploring the scandalous failure of NHS ophthalmology under whatever government we happen to have.
Oh, one other thing. This year is the last of this century’s first decade, not the first of its second, just as 2000 was the last year of a millennium, not the first. In 1999 the world’s democratic leaders, mostly quite clever people, certainly clever enough to understand that 10 years have passed when the 10th year is over, conspired in their pandering to peoples they regarded as children who wanted their Christmas presents early, because the children had votes.
It was easier for the despots to follow suit, but I still regard Tony Blair and all the rest of the cynical celebrants as politicians who think that democracy is a process by which the many empower the few in return for baubles. True democrats would have explained to their constituents why the party should be held at the end of 2000. But then education is inconvenient for governments. Much better to let the press distract with trivia, like what we should call a decade.