The decade without a name Millennium: How will we recognize the first 10 years of the next century without a catchy tag?

September 02, 1998|By Martin Miller | Martin Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's 2003. After three cataclysmic years of pestilence, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, tsunamis and plagues of locusts, the planet is a horrible eyesore. But every dark cloud has its silver lining as two survivors, workers in a time-honored and expanding field, discover.

Man No. 1: These are boom times for the gravedigger.

Man No. 2: Sure beats being a desk jockey.

Man No. 1: In the 1990s we'd have been unemployed, but here in the ... the, uh ... the, this particular decade, we've got it made.

From a '90s vantage point, you can easily see the problem. For that matter, you can see the trouble just as well from an '80s, '70s or '60s perspective. What exactly is the term for the first decade of the next millennium?

"Well, there doesn't appear to be any such name for it," said Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress, who has compiled an expansive bibliography of millennium publications. "And I've seen manuscripts dealing with the millennium dating back to the 17th century."

Fans of "The X-Files" maintain there's a perfectly obvious explanation for the omission. Quite simply, the shadow government has squelched the development of the word. After all, what's the point of developing a first-decade word when the world is going to blow up the millisecond that 2000 arrives?

But for those less given to apocalyptic visions, and they are apparently in the minority, the vocabulary void exists for entirely comprehensible reasons that have nothing to do with deadly goo, a government conspiracy or bug-eyed aliens.

Until the mid-1950s, the notion of dividing time into neat, 10-year blocks seemed absurdly arbitrary. What benefit was there in measuring time with such a blunt instrument when historical trends never cooperated? Major events such as Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, World War II and so on either fell well short of filling out their decades or ran on far past them.

Of course, there were the Roaring '20s, so named for America's freewheeling attitudes toward booze, jazz and the stock market. The decade, however, didn't obtain its "roar" until decades later, when historians wanted to highlight its stark contrast with the '30s, best known in retrospect for the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

"I don't think people in the '20s thought of themselves as living in the '20s," said Fred Fogo, a professor of American popular culture at Westminster College in Utah. "People just didn't think that way then."

But by the mid- to late '50s, the rapid changes of modern life overtook the nation's ability fully to understand them as they happened. During this time, the once-agrarian nation witnessed, among other things, the dawn of rock and roll, the Space Age and the civil rights movement.

Bringing them all home as quickly as they occurred was the brand-new and incredibly powerful medium of television. As Americans watched these vivid images unfold on their small screens, there arose a growing need to make sense of the noise and chaos, say cultural historians. One way was to break up the fearful blur of years into manageable chapters.

"If you're afraid of the future, naming it gives you symbolic control over it," says Stephen D. O'Leary, a millennial scholar at the University of Southern California. "It's really all about control."

Subsequent decades unleashed their own torrent of technological, social and political transformations, and further fueled a demand for order. The acceleration of change too led to an explosive growth in the media, which painstakingly document in words and images the ordinary to the extraordinary. The end result fostered a hyper-self-awareness, cultural historians say.

"In the old days, we named the decades after the fact. Then, we started naming the decades as we lived them," says O'Leary. "Now, we have to anticipate the experience by naming them before they even get here."

Despite the pressures, the English language is still without a word for the next decade. (It's also without one for the decade beginning in 2011. Calling them the teens leaves out the first couple of years.) Not surprisingly, the past is of little help.

One of the few historical references to the problem dates to a class of college freshmen in 1896. Their bright idea was to decree that the first decade of the 20th century should be known as the "Naughty Naughts," according to Freitag.

Somehow, millennium observers doubt the idea will catch on 100 years later.

The vexing question was recently the subject of an informal Internet chat, says O'Leary, who noted the following offerings: the Two Thousands, the Twenty Ohs, the Oh-Ohs, the Double Ohs, the Zeros, the Aughts, the Oughts and the Oughties.

"A name will crop up," maintains Fogo, who has written several books about popular culture. "We're talking about it already. My money is on the folks at Time magazine and Newsweek."

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