It’s time for another decade debate

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Countless Americans eagerly await the transformation that occurs in less than two weeks. What Time magazine (Dec. 7) called the “Decade from Hell” will come to an end. But as we ice down the champagne and stuff the confetti bags, I’ve got one more piece of bad news: The decade might not be over.

This will be one of the most inconsequential columns you’ve ever read. Many of you are asking, “And how is that different from any of your other columns, John?” Fair question, but this column was fun to write and I hope it will be fun to read. What elevates this particular message to a level of breathtaking insignificance is my willingness to argue — in quite convincing fashion — both sides of a debate that bubbles up every 10 years: When is the decade really over?

First, though, let’s all agree that, whenever it ends, this decade in many ways is worse than any of us could have imagined. As Time’s Andy Serwer reported, it was “(b)ookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end” with Hurricane Katrina (2005) falling in the middle. But is it over?

Yes, it’s finally over!

Many people call this decade The Oughts or The ’00s. Clearly, then, the decade includes years that have zero as the third digit. Next year, that third digit turns to a 1, so the end of the decade obviously is at hand.

Consider also the popular terms affixed to decades. The Roaring ’20s can only encompass years that include some derivative of 20. In no way can 1930 be considered part of the Roaring ’20s. Using that logic, 2010 must mark the beginning of the next decade.

I graduated from college in 1970 … unless the bounced check for my graduation fee blocks the release of my transcript. Did any of the rest of you graduate in 1970? Could we say, then, that we graduated in the ’60s? Of course not. We graduated in the ’70s, in the newly arrived decade.

Another point: No one waited until the end of 2000 to celebrate the end of the millennium. That particular party occurred at the end of 1999. So 2009 must mark the end of this decade, too.

Finally, Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a decade as “in common usage, a ten-year period beginning with a year 0, as 1920-1929.”

All of these factors prove that this decade will end on Dec. 31, 2009. Right?

No, there’s more to come!

On the other hand, look at the way a child ages. A baby is not said to be 1 until after living 12 months, and does not celebrate a 10th birthday until after living 10 years. Logical conclusion: The next decade won’t begin until after 2010 concludes.

Remember, also, the way that same child counts fingers or toes or years. As Time (Dec. 21) letter writer Anna Link of Falls Church, Va., describes the counting process, “we begin with one, not zero. The first decade of this millennium began with the year 2001, and the last year of the first decade of this millennium will be next year, 2010.” Very compelling, but …

Uh-oh, does that mean Webster’s dictionary is wrong? No, the definition that I reported earlier, as you can see, pertained to the “common usage” of the word. The same dictionary also defines a decade as “officially, a ten-year period beginning with the year 1, as 1921-1930.” Webster apparently wants to make everyone happy. So do I, by arguing both sides of this eminently trivial debate.

The best answer might be provided by Serwer, the Time reporter, whose published response to Link’s letter invoked the 1999 celebration as the end of the millennium. Serwer strengthened his case by recalling a discussion with his bosses as they planned the story: “The editors here agreed with me. Given the name of the magazine, don’t they deserve a little license?”

And that leads me to this authoritative conclusion: This decade will end whenever your boss — or your spouse — says it will end. OK? And with this column, you have all the ammunition you need to agree with whichever side they happen to take.

Warning: If your boss and your spouse take opposite sides, try to keep them out of the same room.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.