Will this decade actually be known, descendant-wise, as "The Naughties?" Writes the New Yorker's Rebecca Mead, "As we near the end… we still don't have a good collective name for the first decade of the twenty-first century." But we do!
Mead makes short work of "The Aughts":
Arguably, a grudging agreement has been reached on calling the decade "the aughts," but that unfortunate term is rooted in a linguistic error. The use of "aught" to mean "nothing," "zero," or "cipher" is a nineteenth-century corruption of the word "naught," which actually does mean nothing, and which, as in the phrase "all for naught," is still in current usage. Meanwhile, the adoption of "the aughts" as the decade's name only accelerates the almost complete obsolescence of the actual English word "aught," a concise and poetic near-synonym for "anything" that has for centuries well served writers, including Shakespeare ("I never gave you aught," Hamlet says to Ophelia, in an especially ungenerous moment, before she goes off and drowns) and Milton ("To do aught good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight," Satan declares near the beginning of "Paradise Lost," before slinking up to tempt Eve). To call the decade "the aughts" is a compromise that pleases no one, and that has more than a whiff of resigned settling about it.
The "naughties" is, of course, an offense to any sensibility, not least because it seems to cast 9/11, Abu Ghraib and ten years of political turbulence as merry schoolboy pranks ("that naughty Lynndie England!") Sure, it suggests the global nonsense of online networking, the hijinx of Client 9 and various European heads of state, maybe even the ascendency of reality TV. But are those more defining? Of course, you could ask: why do we need a name, come January 1st? Can't we let the decade settle and gain a little hindsight, take on its contours and its trends? Yes, we need to roll out an I Love The - in jig time and wax poetic about Uggs, but is our sense of identity so fragile that we need ourselves catalogued and placed like pinned moths?
We should probably put some real estate developers on it, because, at least in New York, they've got a knack for spinning acronyms out of thin asphalt. What was a wasteland under a bridge became DUMBO - Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, a playground of condos and Danish Modern. From this, RAMBO (Right around the same overpass) sprung. Unrelated neighborhoods get grouped into neat, catchy skeins of abbreviations; unnamed stepchildren are suddenly "Heights" and "Gardens" or "Southern" provinces of more respectable areas. Surely a decade shouldn't be too much of a stretch?
Here's a working idea, albeit a terrible one: The O's. O for Obama, of course, but O for Oprah and O for ordeal, and oversharing, and other, and ostracism, and yes, of course, orgasm. O for ostrich, and for rich, chocolate Ovaltine. Then, you see, a few years down the road we can have headline plays on "O positive" and "O negative" and it will all be very neat and tidy. Will I use this? Of course not. But I don't say "noughties" either, so there you are. Says Mead, "With its intractable conflicts and its irresolvable crises, its astonishing accomplishments and its devastating failures, the decade just gone by remains unnamed and unclaimed, an orphaned era that no one quite wants to own, or own up to-or, truth be told, to have aught else to do with at all." O, contraire.
What Do You Call It? [New Yorker]