Amid the calls to ban wood-burning fireplaces and to neuter dogs and cats, the anti-immigration and anti-tax diatribes, the denunciation of global warming as “baloney,” and the sternly worded opinion on Pakistani elections, I found this rather charming comment in the letters to the editor in today’s Mercury News:
I am mildly irritated by those who pronounce the year as “two thousand eight.” I’ll bet not one of those people said “one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine.” So, why the grammatical schism? What did they say at the turn of the last millennium?
Well, each to his own, Mr. Jacklitch. I happen to find that “two thousand eight” comes out more smoothly than “twenty-oh-eight.” And I submit that this schism, if that’s what it is, is a matter more of diction than of grammar. It’s too bad that we don’t have YouTube videos of Ethelred the Unready giving the royal New Year’s proclamation for 1008 so we can check up on the way the date was handled in the King’s English. (Though it would have been in Anglo-Saxon or Latin anyway.)
I imagine we’ll waffle between “two thousand something” and “twenty something” for a few years longer. Probably until 2020, when saying “twenty twenty” will be irresistible.
Which reminds me that it’s been a long time since there was a lot of discussion about what we’re going to call this decade. People were arguing for “the naughts,” “the aughts,” “the nulls,” “the zeroes,” “the zips” and “the ohs.” It made me wonder when we started naming decades. I’ve read a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, and I don’t recall anyone ever saying something like “back in the forties” in them.
The habit of singling out a decade and putting a label on it seems to have begun with “the Gay Nineties,” a phrase that the not-always-to-be-trusted Wikipedia claims wasn’t coined until 1926. (It also notes that the phrase had to do with “merriment and frivolity,” not the current meaning of “gay,” even though it was the decade of Oscar Wilde’s triumph and tragedy.) But we seem to have skipped over the 1900s and 1910s when it comes to labeling. We don’t start treating decades as cultural units until the Roaring Twenties.
It’s a lazy habit anyway. What we call “the sixties” – protest, youth rebellion, sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and all that – really began in 1964 with Beatles coming to New York and LBJ escalating the Vietnam War with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and didn’t end till … oh, maybe the rise of disco and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a decade of merriment and frivolity again?
Afterthought: I wonder if Mr. Jacklitch referred to 2000 as "twenty-hundred"?