November 18th, 2019


Language is so weird.

How we think informs our words and our words inform how we think.

"It's about to be the 20s again!" I saw that somewhere on the net yesterday. Weird thought, isn't it?

But why is it a weird thought? "It's going to be the 10s again" wasn't a weird thought in the same way.

It's a weird thought because the 20s are a named, remembered, associated decade. "The 20s" means "The Roaring 20s" means flappers and prohibition. It means robber barons and Wall Street tycoons living it big. It means a lot of things. (Some of which are in fact much the same now as they were then. Chew on that one.) "The 10s" didn't mean as much.

Funnily enough, we also don't hear "the 30s" often. But that's because instead of "the 30s" people just say "the Great Depression." Likewise, "the 40s" is more "the war years."

But boy howdy do we hear "the 50s". And all the decades since then, though at that point I think it's more to do with lived memory. I don't just associate the 80s with stories and things I've read and things I've watched on TV, I associate the 80s with things I did. It's not going to get wiped out of my mind in my lifetime, not even if I live to see the 2080s.

We don't remember 1820 at all though, do we? I'm sure to people closer to it, "the 20s" had an 1820-specific meaning. I wonder what it was? Going into the 1920s, lots of people probably knew what the 1820s were like, even if they didn't live through it, just like I know at least some of what the 1920s were like. But the 1920s erased the 1820s from memory, taking over any use of "the 20s" with their new meaning.

How long will it be before even "The Roaring 20s" no longer conjures strong associations for people, and "the 20s" is inextricably linked in peoples' minds with whatever the next decade will bring? That particular decade being so important to history (setting up the Great Depression and changing the lives of an entire generation) combined with having a unique descriptive name may make it stick around longer, but I'm sure there were deeply important decades in the 1800s that we no longer remember unless we're history nerds. It'll happen to the 1920s too, eventually.

Interesting thought, isn't it? We have a set of words whose meaning must turn over entirely every century.

Language is so weird.

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