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MC profs discuss decennial nomenclature

Barry McNamara
01/08/2010
MONMOUTH, Ill. — In the past few days, many people have found themselves needing a simple name as they refer to the recently completed decade. Trouble is, there is no simple answer. Due to distracting issues like Y2K, best of the millennium lists and debate over whether a decade started in the “0” or “1” year, no consensus on what to call the years 2000 to 2009 was reached before the decade started. Ten years have done little to change the situation.

Among the suggestions have been the “ohs,” the “double-ohs,” the “zeros” and the “naughties.” None have ever caught on, so Monmouth College history professors were asked what “decennial nomenclature” – to borrow a phrase from New Yorker columnist Rebecca Mead – they thought might eventually stick.
 
“I’d go for the ‘Twenty Oughts,’” said William Urban, the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History & International Studies, choosing to intentionally misspell “aught.”
 
He added, “I rather like the implication that the last decade ‘ought’ to have been something else, but we can’t run control groups on history, and, to judge by the people buying Christmas presents, it could have been worse.”
 
Assistant professor Fred Witzig said he “very briefly checked a few recent American history textbooks for their characterization of the first decade. They seem to call it simply ‘The 2000s.’”
The Monmouth professors were also asked if “The 2000s” will wind up with a catchy nickname, like “The Gay Nineties” or “The Roaring Twenties.”
“One textbook published in 2009 subtitled the section on the first decade of the 2000s ‘America in Crisis,’” said Witzig. “But as I tell my students, I’m hesitant to put much stock in characterizations of recent American history. I’m not even sure we know enough about the 1980s to make any grand pronouncements yet. We could be seeing the waning of America as the world’s superpower, or we could be at the start of ‘the next American century,’ as one textbook confidently declares.”
“It’s far too early to see if the decade is over yet,” said Urban. “Jacques Barzun dated the Nineties from 1890 to 1914, and the Sixties ended about 1974. We don’t know yet if the next decade will be sufficiently different to have its own name. Once Iran and North Korea have atomic weapons and effective missile systems, the ‘20 Oughts’ might look like the last years of our golden age.”
 
Associate professor Simon Cordery agreed with that “last years” sentiment, suggesting “How about ‘The End?’ The first decade of the 21st century may well go down in history as the final burst of glory for unrestrained capitalism. A resurgence of socialism is unlikely, but a move toward a mixed economy is possible, and even necessary.”
 
While Urban’s “20 Oughts” might not catch on, he seems to have valid points about the nomenclature for the current year and decade.
 
“We should probably start referring to the year ‘twenty ten,’ as in 1910, 1810, 1710,” he said. “It would be awkward to speak of the ‘Eighteen Hundred and Twelve Overture.’”
As for the decade, Urban said, “The ‘20 Teens’ isn’t perfect, but has anyone thought of anything better?”
 
Cordery said a lack of forward thinking could play the major role in how the early 21st century will ultimately be remembered.
“In a nutshell, the story of this decade may be politicians, financiers, industrialists and consumers looking only to the next month or year with no concern for anything beyond the immediate temporal horizon.”
 
Of what else is in the store for “The Teens,” Cordery said, “The dramatic failures of Copenhagen and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that international relations should be more intentionally multilateral. We should expect to see, and indeed embrace, the further erosion of national sovereignty. Self-regulation does not work. So, who should take over? Who or what institution could oversee the creation of a mixed global economy where charters of individual freedom coexist with controls on economic activity? The only logical place is the U.N., but history so rarely follows logic. Let me just suggest that the next decade will be one of many false dawns. Our collective problems may not be intractable but they are long-term and, at the end of ‘The Teens,’ we will begin to realize and act on that challenge.”
 
Speculating on the immediate past, much less gazing into the future, “is not the province of the historian,” cautioned Cordery.

In other words, he and his history faculty colleagues don’t have 2020 vision.