Why we are living in a nameless decade?

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a love song to a decade. It's nostalgia wrapped in a fantasy of returning to an era of joie de vivre.

They were heady times for some when F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali rubbed shoulders, egos and ideas in the cafes and nightclubs of Paris.

The '20s will be here again before we know it.
The '20s will be here again before we know it. Photo: Moorland-Springarn Research Centre

Part of the city's enduring charm was sculpted by the Crazy Years as they were known in France (Les Annees Folles), firing imaginations for time to come with the legacy of art deco, flapper fashions and a bohemian spirit. 

In English the decade was immortalised as the Roaring Twenties. Like the Swinging Sixties, or the "Greed is Good" Eighties, the Twenties made their linguistic mark.

Even without an adjective, most decades of the last century rolled nicely off the tongue. The Forties, the Fifties, the Seventies, the Nineties – all had a pleasing rhyme as they followed a pattern of speech. 

But halfway through the second decade of this century we are still no closer to resolving its challenge. When the 2010s began, writers grappled with their anonymity: "What is this damn decade called?" demanded a Crikey author.


Shall we call it the Tenties? The Tenners? The Teens? The Onesies? The Oneties to follow the Noughties? In Australia a competition was run, a winner named (the Oneders), but nothing stuck.

"It's a funny thing with language," says Professor Nick Enfield, chair of the department of linguistics at the University of Sydney. "You set up a pattern where there's a rhyme and a common thread and if the language doesn't allow you to keep making that pattern then there's a kind of a block on it."

The Noughties failed to take ownership of 2000 to 2009 because they didn't follow the pattern of the previous decades, he says, and because the word is a homonym for badly behaved. "It has an amusing second meaning and it obviously doesn't seem to fit with what those years were … they definitely weren't naughty, so the pun doesn't work."

Enfield says the past two decades were dealt a blow not only by their place at the start of a new century. "My sense is now we have just been really obsessed with the new millennium rather than the new decade … it's a new millennium and frankly an entirely new era." 

However, the limits of our language are not the limits of our world, he says. There are things we recognise but don't name, such as the present decade. Think, as Douglas Adams did in his book The Meaning of Liff, of the feeling of trying to dry yourself with a towel that's wet. "We all know this feeling but we don't have a word for it," Enfield says.

And there's a bigger linguistic challenge around the corner, he says. In five years' time, the Twenties will start all over. "But we already have the Twenties. And that's the time of art deco and silent movies. So I think it will be a bit odd next decade because that name is already claimed by the '20s of the 20th century."

Let the competitions begin.