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Monday, January 24, 2011

What Year is it Again?

This afternoon I was listening to my favorite podcast, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, when I heard something that bugged me.  As I sat thoroughly engulfed in the hybrid of intellect and irreverence that typifies the program, co-host and intrepid skeptical rogue Rebecca Watson mentioned something that I had encountered on a few blogs in the past week.  This was not the first time I’d heard it nor was it the first time that it bothered me.

I should begin by saying (in case this blog shows up in the Google alert she has on her name) that I adore Rebecca Watson and would normally speak no ill of her, but if I didn't amplify idiosyncratic irritants to absurd levels I would have no material for this blog at all.

The exchange that irked me today involved the consensus pronunciation of the present year.  The conversation in question began when unrealistically knowledgeable host and Dr. Steven Novella referred to this annual cycle as “Two thousand eleven.”  Rebecca took tongue in cheek exception to that phrasing and did so with the preamble “Not to be pedantic, but…”

Before delving into the details of the objection, I should take a moment to point out that it is an immutable law of conversation that the words "not to be pedantic but" can only be followed by an extraordinarily pedantic statement.  In fact, the word pedantic is somewhat pedantic by itself.

But the fact that the word pedantic is pedantic is just one of the pet peeves that I file away with the persistence of the word ‘utilize’ in a language that already has ‘use’.  It was the statement that followed, which echoed many others I’ve seen across the blogosphere that irritated me.

“This has been discussed and the internet has decided that its ‘twenty eleven’, not ‘two thousand eleven’”, Rebecca said, or more accurately, I paraphrased rather than taking the forty-six seconds I would need to replay and transcribe the exchange verbatim.

This was not my first encounter with this particular linguistic rift.  A quick Googling of “twenty eleven or two thousand eleven” will connect you with dozens of heated blog exchanges on the same subject.  Based on brief and lackluster research, the majority online view seems to be in the “twenty eleven” camp and they make a strong logical case for their position.  Their preferred articulation saves the speaker a full syllable and is more keeping with tradition.  After all, nobody outside a medieval proclamation or papal bull ever referred to the year as “one thousand some hundred and something”.

Despite the preponderance of logic being allied against them, there are staunch supporters on the “two thousand eleven” side of the rampart as well.  While their argument stems more from an aesthetic viewpoint, they also point out that the tradition thus far in the millennium is to leave the two thousand in.  They also emphasize the fact that legendary director Stanley Kubrik already decided on this when he did "2010" and reportedly felt that 'twenty ten' sounded stupid.

While this battle continues to rage from one mother’s basement to another, the rest of us carry on largely calling the year “two thousand eleven”.  I will be the first to confess its unscientific nature, but in an informal poll of every single person I encountered today when I asked what year it was, they called it “two thousand eleven”.  Admittedly, this came after a long pause while they tried to decide whether I was setting them up for a joke or had been sent back to kill John Conner.

And this is why the whole kerfuffle digs its way so deep under my hypersensitive cultural skin.  Any attempt to impose sanity on the English language is a direct rebellion against everything that our language stands for.  Sure, it makes more logical sense to call it 'twenty eleven', but since when does logic dictate language?  English proudly displays its slapdash and indiscriminate irrationality.  Let me point to exhibit A, the fact that inflammable, indecent and interior can’t agree on the meaning of their shared prefix.  In fact, it is this internal inconsistency that gives nit-picking speakers like myself so many great opportunities for pedantry.

Language is a living thing and thus it is subject to the same random mutations and pressures of natural selection as any other organism.  Evolution does not organize us in a manner that is sensible, but rather in a manner that is minimally effective.  Despite the best efforts of dictionaries, logophiles and red-pen wielding English teachers, culture always finds a way to mold the dialect in whatever muddled direction it chooses.  Those doctrinaire stalwarts who stand against the anarchic tsunami of colloquial preference are doomed to drown as soon as they open their mouths to point out that data is plural.

So to those who would say that we should call it “twenty eleven” because that’s quicker, I ask why we don’t call it “twenty one-one” and save one more syllable?  To those who would point out that we already accepted breaking the year up into two double-digit numbers and did so without incident for a thousand years, I remind them that for the vast majority of that time we were also illiterate and only bathed biannually.

Clearly it doesn't matter how one chooses to pronounce the year.  Both phrasings are equally valid and if anyone tries to 'correct' me, I'll start referring to the year in binary (00001011111).  It is futile to pretend that logic can be imposed on our temporal nomenclature, especially while we're still using the Gregorian Calendar.

I expect that this debate will continue with its sub-auditory background buzz of irate nerdiness until the year 2020 when it will be universally accepted that “twenty-twenty” sounds cooler than “two thousand twenty”.  Until then I foresee the popular preference remaining too ambiguous to pin down.

In a sense, it seems like a premature battle to begin with.  We still haven’t collectively decided what we’re calling the previous decade.  Somebody needs to do that quickly too, because I’m already getting sick of referring to the music of the last ten years as the “aught sound”.

Aaron Davies

PS The eight weeks after Christmas are utterly insane in the toy industry and as my income is derived from said industry I’ve been unable to regularly update my blog so far this year.  I apologize to my regular readers for the infrequency of my updates and I assure you all that by late February the insanity will start to attenuate and I can be back on here to perpetuate my unique brand of exasperated verbosity more often.

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