The sour-sounding lead on a piece in Harper's magazine a few months ago brought to mind a language issue that we've somehow muddled through without ever settling: what to call the first decade of the 21st century.
"Perhaps we should call them the Naughts, since they will be remembered chiefly for their wants," essayist Roger Hodge suggested parenthetically before charging ahead in pursuit of his main point, the current general decline of America.
Time was when a designation for these first few years of the third millennium was a hot topic among word lovers. William Safire, whose "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine is in its 30th year, was all over the subject at one point in 1989. He suggested "the zippy zeros."
But alas, it hasn't worked out quite that way.
Richard Lederer, author of "Anguished English" fame, also wondered what we would call the new decade. He wrote in 1999 that the early years of the 20th century were known as "the aughties" and mused whether the term might catch on in the coming century.
I don't think aughties has caught on – not for want of trying, however, on the part of Scott Pederson of Ithaca, N.Y. According to his website, he is an entrepreneur who has registered the phrases "Aughties," "Naughties," "Naughts," "Aughts" and "Naughty Aughties" as trademarks to describe the present decade. "We NEED an identifier," his website insists, and while it's not clear just what he's selling, he urges visitors to his site to "become licensees."
All this has prompted me to do a little poking around on the subject of naught/nought and aught/ought. As their throat-clearing "ugh" spelling suggests, these words all come from the Germanic side of English. Aught or ought is an indefinite pronoun meaning "anything at all." It was once fairly common in constructions such as, "For aught I know, he may have already left." (Nowadays this tends to come out as "for all I know.")
Naught or nought means "nothing," but nought is another way of saying "zero." Otherwise, my dictionary prefers the "au" forms of these words to their "ou" variants.
But there are some other nuances: "An aught" is yet another way of "a zero," but it's considered a "faulty separation" – it started as "a naught," but then the "n" migrated over to keep the definite article company: "an aught." (The same thing happened with an apron and an orange.) Ought is also an auxiliary verb: "You ought to slow down at this curve."
Inquiring minds may wonder why naughty means what it does if naught or nought means literally nothing at all. By 1377, naugti meant needy, having nothing. A century and a half later, it had come to mean bad, wicked, or morally wrong. The underlying metaphor was the idea of moral bankruptcy.
Aside from the question of what to call the decade as a whole – have you, too, been surprised at how the rather grand-sounding "thousand" has remained in ordinary conversation? When 2000 loomed, people pronounced it as "two thousand," generally with "the year" in front of it, because otherwise it wasn't readily recognizable as a year. Then there was 2001, which inevitably recalled Stanley Kubrick's "Space Odyssey" flick. No way could we fail to pronounce the "thousand."
A bold prediction: I have a hunch that next year will be the one when the "thousand" disappears, and people refer to the year as "twenty ten."