Archive for February 9th, 2010


It’s five weeks into the new decade. There was no consensus on what to call the OLD decade: the zeroes, the aughts, the naughts?

This got me to thinking. How did some of the decades of the past get such colorful appellations? Specifically, why the Gay Nineties? Was there an excessive amount of nitrous oxide available? And what of the Roaring Twenties? What was so leonine about it, and did it have something to do with the MGM lion?

According to the Wikipedia, “The (‘Gay Nineties’) term…began to be used in the 1920s and is believed to have been created by the artist Richard V. Culter, who first released a series of drawings in Life magazine entitled ‘the Gay Nineties’ and later published a book of drawings with the same name. The high life of the ‘old money’ families was well documented in the novels of, for example, Edith Wharton, and Booth Tarkington.” It was “sometimes referred to as the ‘Mauve Decade,’ because William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye allowed the widespread use of that colour in fashion.” That latter designation was totally unfamiliar to me. It’s an interesting idea, given the fact that there was a depression in 1893 in the United States, following economic distress in Europe and elsewhere in the years before the collapse.

“The Roaring Twenties is a phrase used to describe the 1920s, principally in North America but also in London, Paris and Berlin. The phrase was meant to emphasize the period’s social, artistic, and cultural dynamism.” Likewise, “the Jazz Age describes the period after the end of World War I, through the Roaring Twenties, ending with the onset of
the Great Depression. Traditional values of the previous period declined while the American stock market soared. The age takes its name from popular music, which saw a tremendous surge in popularity. Among the prominent concerns and trends of the
period are the public embrace of technological developments typically seen as progress — cars, air travel and the telephone – as well as new modernist trends in social behavior, the arts, and culture. Central developments included Art Deco design and architecture.”

While I had heard of the Dust Bowl, I was totally unfamiliar with this paired designation: The Dust Bowl or the Dirty Thirties was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands from 1930 to 1936 (in some areas until 1940). The phenomenon was caused by severe drought coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops or other techniques to prevent erosion.”

Some have called the Fifties “Fabulous” but it was not a standardized definition, as far as I can tell. I can’t help but think that some think of it as “fabulous” because of a post-WWII “normalcy”, while others might find it likewise fabulous because of the growth of rock & roll.

The sixties were tumultuous, but again no one made that a designation that stuck. Whereas, “Novelist Tom Wolfe coined the term Me decade in New York magazine in August 1976 referring to the 1970s. The term describes a general new attitude of Americans towards self-awareness and away from history, community, and human reciprocity awareness, in clear contrast with the 1960s.

Will there be clear naming of these last three decades that we can agree on?

Here’s something that had created some disagreement: some people seem to think that the new decade does not start until after 2010, and that it runs 2001-2010. This seems to come from a desire to create consistency, but it lacks logic. We know that the 19th Century ran from 1801 to 1900, and that the century is essentially named for the last year of the century, 1900. It’s likewise true with the 20th Century and 2000 or the 21st Century and 2100. There are those who seem to think that the borders of the decades should fit into the borders of the century. But why?

Clearly the 1960s is named for 1960, the first year in the range 1960-1969. To suggest that it started in 1961 would be illogical; the year that names a decade should be IN the decade. Likewise, the Seventies started in 1970. The Aughts (or whatever), started in 2000, which, as noted, is the last year of the prior century. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

If consistency were in play, we might have 13 months, each four weeks long, with one or two off-calendar days, or perhaps a catch-up week every few years, as described here. Instead we have 30 days in “September, April, June and November”, etc. Of course, if logic were in play, our ninth through twelfth months wouldn’t have prefixes representing the numbers seven through ten, respectively.

Oh, one last thing: when you write 1960s, or 1990s or 1870s, please do not use an apostrophe; it’s not 1960’s or 1990’s or 1870’s. This source confirms my point. Which means that that lovely graphic above, which I purloined from the Chicago Sun Times newspaper, is, unfortunately, wrong!

Decade pictures courtesy of Life magazine, allowed for non-commercial use.

ROG

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