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The Millenium Looms: Do You Know What to Call the New Century?

June 23, 1996|Tim Appelo | Tim Appelo is film critic for the Portland Oregonian

Oh, how we snickered when we learned that most of the nation's computers would think it was 1900 when their internal Dayrunners hit the end of 1999. Red-faced IBM felt compelled to issue a proclamation that henceforth all its products would be "year 2000-compliant." Silly software nerds! They may be zillionaires, but we always knew they were too impractical to deal with reality.

* Well, deal with this, average non-techno-nerd citizen: There is a programming glitch in everyone's head that is going to catch most of us by surprise in four short years. Until we start getting year-2000 compliant ourselves, and damn fast, we'd better quit chortling at those myopic programmers.

* The glitch in question is this: How on earth should we refer to the immediately post-fin-de-siecle period? The day it is no longer the '90s, what will it be?

"I hear it as 'two thousand . . . two thousand and one . . .' and so on," says futurist Hazel Henderson, author of "Paradigms in Progress" and 'Creating Alternative Futures."

No way, says forward-looking Ed Doyle, co-founder of a new gallery-cum-emporium called Carnival of Souls, located near the site of the Woodstock Festival in Upstate New York. " 'Two thousand' is gonna be too cumbersome. I mean, do you say, 'One thousand nine hundred ninety-six' now? It'll be 'twenty-one . . . twenty-two . . . ' " "With respect to the new millennium--which, against all sense, begins in the year 2001, not in the year 2000," says University of Washington medieval historian Robert Stacey, "most people I hear are saying 'twenty-ten' for the year 2010, etcetera. However, my guess is that 'two thousand two,' etcetera, will win out over 'twenty oh two' or 'twenty oh three.' " Yet in referring to the last millennium, scholars sing a different tune. "English-speaking medieval historians generally call the year 1007 'ten oh seven,' " adds Stacey. "And 1096, the date of the first Crusade, is inevitably 'ten ninety-six.' " Perhaps it's too much to expect history to predict the future on this issue. "A couple of years ago I did some work for the Metropolitan Water District," says Pasadena author Bettyann Kevles. "Everything we did was 20, 30 years ahead. It was like living in the future. We always said 'the twenties' for the first decade, and then 'the twenty-tens' . . . 'the twenty-twenties.' " Still, Kevles is not sure that's how people will be talking in the actual future. "Everything we predicted is already wrong," she jokes.

Novelist Tom Robbins plans to pronounce the year 2004 as "two oh oh four," lending support to the just-instituted policy of this newspaper, which shall henceforth refer to the century's first decade as "the '00s," presumably pronounced "the oh-ohs."

Carnival of Souls merchant Doyle loves that idea: " 'Uh-oh' is right! Whenever I think about the next decade, I sure go, 'Uh-oh!' I think we should call that decade 'the Roaring Uh-Ohs.' "

A few years back, readers participating in an Orlando Sentinel poll suggested that the term "the O-O's" be used for the years 2000-2009. They also suggested "the Nullies," "the Deuce Decade," "the Two Double-O's," 'the Zips" and "the Zeros." A major West Coast novelist whose work, five-zero book advances and predilection for privacy are akin to Thomas Pynchon's, addresses the question on the condition of strict anonymity: 'I'd go for 'the Zero Decade' and refer to the years as, for instance, 'zero seven' for 2007. The Zeros will be thrust upon us, so your proactive approach is welcome."

Yet purely numerical approaches to the year-2000 compliance miss some of the human drama of the occasion. "Aren't we lucky to be living at the turn of the century?" notes Firesign Theatre co-founder David Ossman, who did a futuristic solo album about the year 2000 in 1973. "It's like having a million miles turn over on your automobile--you want to have your eye on that odometer."

To recognize the epochal nature of the next decade, photographer and music-video director Lance Mercer suggests that we come up with a name evocative of the trippy finale of the film "2001': "I think we should call it 'the Light Years.' " Neal Karlen, co-author of a rock opera with "1999" composer (let's just say it) Prince, proposes that the first decade be called "the Oughts" because "it reminds me of Professor Harold Hill in 'The Music Man,' who claims to be a graduate of the Gary Conservatory, Class of Ought Five."

Television comedy writer Bill Barol agrees in principle, if not in spelling. "I think they should be called 'the Aughts,' as in 'aught one, aught two.' " Ought what the Los Angeles Times calls the " '00s" instead be termed 'the Oughts"? Miss Manners thinks not.

Or rather, "naught." Judith Martin, author of "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium," who describes herself as a professional 'etiquetteer," has characteristically pointed notions concerning manners of speech and matters of social grace in the next century.

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