We didn’t mind for the first couple years of the century. After all, in the heady days of Y2K, with all its tantalizing possibilities, we were excited to articulate the year Two Thousand, and even Two Thousand One. But come on, folks: We’re almost six years in, and we haven’t come up with a colloquial way to refer to our new century? We still say Two Thousand Five, long and formal, hardly what we’d expect from our slang-riddled language. And that’s not even to mention the as-yet unmentionable: How, without stumbling over the foreign-sounding “aughts,” do we refer to this decade of ours?
Drexel linguist Barbara Hoekje suggests two reasons for the stubborn attachment to Two Thousand: the cultural significance of turning the century, which still resonates in our collective mind, and the potential for verbal stumbles when uttering three different numbers, as in twenty-oh-five. “It’s just easier to say one number, like two-thousand-five, than to say a double digit and two single digits,” Hoekje says. “There’s not an easy shortcut for the ‘00’ years.” On the other hand, Hoekje posits this will all change when we hit the teen years. Starting in 2011, she suggests, the phrase “twenty-eleven” — simply a pair of double-digit numbers — will roll off the tongue more easily than “two-thousand-eleven,” a pattern that will probably stick for the rest of the century.
Of course, that doesn’t help us for the next several years. Nor does it solve the aughts problem. We all know what we mean when we say the ’60s or the ’90s; it’s not just a point in time, but also a cultural event — the hippie ’60s, the web-boom ’90s. We won’t know the meaning of the ’00s until at least the end of the decade; but even then, what will we call it? The aughts, despite occasional attempts, can’t possibly stick. Nor, probably, can the “millennials,” which is how colleges refer to their incoming students. CBS3 anchor Larry Mendte — who, after all, will need to utter the phrase on-air — suggests perhaps this will be known as the Y2K Decade. But he’s also in no hurry to coin the phrase. “I work well on deadline,” he says. “I’ll pull an all-nighter on New Year’s Eve 2009 and come up with something. Until then, I don’t think we have to worry about it.”