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New Year's name game: '00s were the 'Downhill Decade'

With all those zeroes, some are calling the first decade of the 2000s the 'Noughties.' But whatever they name it, most Americans think the decade was pretty much a bummer.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2009

Fireworks light up the skyline of the financial district to usher in the New Year on Jan. 1, 2010 in Singapore.

Wong Maye-E/AP

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Everyone seems to agree that the decade just ending has had more than its share of sobering experiences, but what should those 10 years be called?

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The Noughties? The Oughts? The Zeroes?

Maybe the decade that spanned from the 9/11 attacks to a “great recession” will never have a catchy name, but if it ends up being called the “downhill decade,” you’ll be able to thank 36 anonymous people who responded to a recent Pew Research Center poll.

The Pew survey asked people to characterize the decade of the 2000s in a single word. Call it a high-stakes game of free association. Of 779 respondents, the highest number who thought of the same word was 36. The word they converged on was “downhill.” Some other responses that made the Pew list were also “D” words, by the way: decline, disappointing, disaster, depressing, and difficult. Rivals from other parts of the alphabet included turbulent, scary, and crazy.

The Pew Research Center is far from the only one trying to name this decade, though. Some of the other catch phrases may draw on the twin zeroes that anchor each year’s numeric name during the decade.

'The Big Zero'

Economist and columnist Paul Krugman recently dubbed the decade “The Big Zero,” an era in which the US gained virtually zero jobs, the typical US family made zero economic progress, and stock prices failed to rise.

Since “nought” means zero, some are calling the decade the “noughties.” But that moniker seems to beg for an adjective to go with it, the way “roaring” went with “20s.”

And another commentator’s riff on the rising power of Google during the decade makes one wonder: Is it just a coincidence that Google (ticker symbol GOOG) has double-O’s in its name just like these past 10 years have had in their names? OK, maybe that IS just a coincidence, but it’s still worth pondering when you do your first online search in the new decade.

Calendar sticklers argue that technically, the old decade still has a year to run. But most people aren’t calendar sticklers, and seem ready to get a jump on the next 10-year period. Respondents in the Pew poll think it will be a better one.

In addition to asking people to name the past decade in a word, the Pew survey asked people how they felt about it.

1980s seen as best recent decade

The “overall impression” of the decade is negative for 50 percent of Americans, and positive for only 27 percent. Asked for their impressions of the prior four decades, poll respondents said all were more positive. The 1980s drew the most upbeat assessment (56 percent positive to only 12 percent negative), and none of those decades was viewed in a mainly negative light.

Although the 2000s were a decade of economic progress for many of the world’s people, the period saw a succession of difficult experiences for Americans and for others worldwide. In the Pew poll, the 9/11 terror attacks were unequivocally the most important event, selected as such by 53 percent of respondents. Wars followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, spanning most of the decade. Hurricane Katrina was matched by a Tsunami in Asia. Financially, an Internet bust and Enron’s collapse got the decade off to a rocky start, only to see things turn down even more sharply in 2008.

“The Big Zero” aside, no decade is all bad. Fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots can’t see the 2000s as a total wipeout, for example. But if a name sticks for this decade, it appears likely that it won’t carry a positive image.

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