The Whaughts?

time-decade-from-hellI began advocating for the aughts 15 years ago. I was not alone — Google search finds the term used occasionally to describe the first decade of the 21st century as far back as January 2000 — but for many years it made people uncomfortable. When we were living through the 1980s, we could say things like “I can’t wait for the eighties to be over.” But in 2005, if you mentioned casually that you thought the aughts were becoming the decade of Iraq, people looked at you funny, not because they thought Iraq was unimportant but because they thought the word aught was weird, pretentious, or from another language.

So what did those people call the decade we were in, not that long ago? I’ve been thinking about this question this week for two reasons. One is that our administrative assistant has been needing some files from three and four years ago, and I notice that she refers to those years as “two twelve” and “two thirteen.” What makes sense about this approach is that we never got around to calling 2008, for instance, “twenty oh eight,” but stuck to “two thousand eight” (same number of syllables, after all); so if you want to take the same approach in current and future decades, you might opt to keep the two and drop the thousand, in order to avoid the clumsiness of two thousand thirty-seven. And after all, no one’s likely to think the administrative assistant needs a file from the third century.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about the name for the first decade of the century has been the presidential campaigns, which talk about the Obama administration or the George Bush administration. Some on-the-street comedy sketches have revealed that some citizens’ understanding of their history is so vague that they wonder where Barack Obama was when the planes flew into the World Trade towers. There might be a value in speaking of this decade that saw us through the Gore/Bush Florida fiasco and WikiLeaks.

So let’s review. During the decade itself, a number of possible terms surfaced, from the twenty ohs to the zeros. In Britain and Australia, apparently, the term noughties caught on quickly. Nought, of course, is one spelling of naught, which means nothing. And since naughty seems far too mild a word to apply to the extreme events of 2001-10, noughties seems a sensible choice. But like knickers, it’s perhaps too archly British to catch on on this side of the pond.

Aught, by contrast, really means the converse of naught — that is, anything or all. Shakespeare was fond of it in this original sense:

I take no pleasure/In aught a eunuch has (Cleopatra to Mardian, Antony and Cleopatra)

It might be yours or hers, for aught I know (Diana, speaking of a ring, All’s Well that Ends Well)

If thou art changed to aught, ’tis to an ass (Luciana to Dromio, Comedy of Errors)

But like many other terms, aught has come to mean its opposite — perhaps because, like napron and norange, it ran into the end of a prior word, as when York says to the Queen, in Henry VI, Part 2, “What, worse than naught?” However it got there, when we use the word — which is rarely — we tend to use it as a synonym, not an antonym, of naught. Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker pointed out this illogic at the end of the decade, when the aughts was still, according to her, “a compromise that pleases no one.” Yet magically, as if overnight (really beginning around 2011), the aughts has become the accepted term for the years in question. (Let’s not belabor the argument as to whether the decade begins in 2000 and runs through 2009, or begins in 2001 and runs through 2010. The sixties, after all, really didn’t get rolling until at least 1964.) Google searches for the aughts, over the past year, turn up mostly references to the decade, whereas searches for the naughts turns up a potpourri of references, few of them referring to time. And the noughties remains primarily British.

I don’t really care that aught has changed its meaning; it’s not the first word to do so. And as a handle on the decade, I like it. A word that had seemed archaic now sounds, in headlines like “Who Let the Aughts Out?” (Popcrush), like a hip term.

So come on, politicians. Let’s talk about the aughts. All of them. It was a helluva decade. It deserves a name.

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