Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Twentiers vs. thousandaires

In recent days I've had a number of lively discussions with friends about their preference for what to call the year 2010.

There are two obvious choices: "two thousand ten" and "twenty ten." Then there's the slightly less popular choice that's very similar to the first: "two thousand and ten," though I think that's said mostly by people who say "September the 11th."

I've got my own preference, and I contend that we had the decision collectively made for us by a movie that came out 26 years ago.

When a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released 16 years later in 1984 -- and, in many minds, quite superfluously -- it was called 2010: The Year We Make Contact. You didn't hear anyone call it "Twenty Ten: The Year We Make Contact," and the reason was obvious: As a sequel to 2001, it should clearly bear the same naming properties. Even if, in a vacuum, you would have called that year "twenty ten," its very status as a follow-up to "two thousand one" meant it would be named "two thousand ten."

And since we had no other reason to make mention of that year before that point -- no more so than we would randomly talk about 2016, 2049 or 2742 -- it settled in our consciousness and stuck. 2010 would be "two thousand ten" when it actually arrived on the calendar.

Except now, there's been a serious "twenty movement." A lot of people I've talked to would really prefer "twenty ten." They think it sounds buoyant and whimsical and snappy. I'm inclined to agree, but I don't think that alone is a reason to determine how a year is referenced in speech.

They cite the precedent of the 1900s, when things were called "nineteen" and not "one thousand nine hundred." The statement "Well duh" should cover that pretty well. In that case it's clearly just a syllables issue. Not to mention the precedent set by the previous five or six hundred years of spoken language.

But rolling over to 2000 changed the rules, and gave us a new precedent that we've been using for ten years. Ten years is, I believe, long enough for a precedent, even when the previous precedent lasted the better part of a millennium. Clearly we weren't going to call those years "twenty one" or "twenty seven," for the obvious reason that those numbers already exist and mean something quite different. Never mind the fact that people would never know you were actually referring to a year unless you prefaced it with "the year." We could have, I suppose, called those years "twenty oh one" and "twenty oh seven," but that just sounds stupid.

I understand those people who want to restore the "twenty" naming structure, but I think our collective memory of a movie not very many of us saw should win out in this case. I have not even seen all of 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which is quite strange because I had it on VHS at one point and watched the opening ten minutes several times. If you've never seen 2010, it's worth a rental just for those eerie opening minutes, some of the eeriest I've ever seen. It's basically just a recap of some of the final events of 2001, but it's handled in the form of still images and a computer report typewriting over them, plus some damn scary music. And if you've never heard Keir Dullea's line "My God, it's full of stars" all twisted and warped by computer distortion, it'll give you nightmares. I'm getting chills right now -- maybe I need to add this movie to my queue and finally watch the whole thing.

And because of 2010, I think it was all the easier for me to call Roland Emmerich's recent disaster epic "two thousand twelve." The fact that it's a different year, however, could make a difference in how other people named the movie. Some people are now telling me they did call 2012 "twenty twelve," and I don't want to accuse them of lying. After all, 2012 is both an Olympic year and a presidential election year, so we'd been referring to it long before the movie was even a glint in Emmerich's eye. (Plus, 2012 has always been the end of the Mayan calendar, so a lot of us knew it in that context before the movie anyway). I guess it's quite possible that the International Olympic Committee has been calling them "twenty twelve" and "twenty sixteen" for years now. I can't rightly say that I remember. Or, it could be that just as in society at large, different members of the IOC have been saying it differently. It hardly makes sense to set an institutional policy, right?

And here's where I may shock you -- I agree with the twentiers once we reach 2020. Rather arbitrary, right? Perhaps I'm the worst offender out there, because I advocate different methods depending on where we are in the century. Then again, so do all the twentiers, who certainly didn't complain about saying "two thousand one." But at least their transition date makes some amount of sense. They say we should start using "twenty" as soon as it is semantically viable, in 2010.

Why 2020 for me? Again it has to do with the precedent set by a movie.

In 2004 I saw a Chinese language film called 2046, directed by Wong Kar Wai. (It actually says Kar Wai Wong on IMDB -- I must admit I am still flummoxed about how to correctly say Chinese names, which is another issue altogether, but I heard it as Wong Kar Wai at the time, which dovetails quite nicely with this discussion.)

When referencing this film to other people, it felt natural to me to call it "twenty forty-six." And that's how I alphabetized it in my movie list. Instead of taking all the numbered titles and putting them together, as they do at some video stores, I alphabetize as they would appear if you spelled the numbers out in words. So 2046 would actually appear before 2001 and 2010, as "twenty" comes before "two" in the alphabet.

So even though I was not consciously aware of it at the time, I was having this naming debate with myself as long as six years ago. I didn't acknowledge anything strange about the fact that I had automatically called this movie "twenty forty-six," even though the others began with "two thousand." It did not seem to require an intellectual explanation.

But obviously I don't advocate starting to call the years "twenty whatever" only in time for 2046. That would be ludicrous indeed.

So when, logically, should that start? Here's where the twentiers probably have a point. They think we should start it now. I think we should wait until 2020, when, paradoxically, everyone will confuse everyone else by having to explain whether they are talking about a year, or the name of a popular TV snow.

And I guess the only reason I really think that is because of 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which has already claimed this entire decade for itself.

Strange but somehow sturdy reasoning, don't you think?

Or, what you could do is say that 2010 will be the final year we use "two thousand," instead of 2009. That could satisfy both camps: those who want to respect the precedent set by the movie, and those who want to switch over to "twenty" pretty damn soon. Because as I'm thinking about it, although "two thousand ten" doesn't sound unwieldy to me, "two thousand eleven" sort of does. Plus there's something appropriate about making the switch in 2011, as that is the actual beginning of the next decade, as we all know from the whole "when is it really the new millennium" debate that was regularly discussed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Who knows if a consensus will ever be reached. We're only on day five of this new frontier.

But me, I plan to pay pretty close attention to see which wins out.

Check back here in January of 2020 for my follow-up post.


Dawn said...

I am glad I found your post, even if it was after I posted the same question on my facebook.

I hadn't considered the song In The Year 2525 until your mention of 2020. The song is twenty-five twenty-five.

The "and" people annoy me because "and" means a decimal.

Lord Vader said...

OK, I would normally let this kind of thing go, but knowing how pedantic you are about the correct titling and spelling of movies, I need to point out to you that Peter Hyams' follow up to "2001: A Space Odyssey" is not, and never has been, titled "2010" The Year We Make Contact". "The Year We Make Contact" is some advertising hack's strapline for the movie (let's face it, it's no "In space, no-one can hear you scream") that has somehow ended up being used as a subtitle on most video releases, even finding it's way onto the spine of the DVD and Blu-ray. Just because the distributor has no idea what their film is called, doesn't mean I'm going to let you off the hook!

PS you may have noticed my blogging has lapsed to an extraordinary degree. I will not be offended if you remove my blog from your front page blogroll, as I can't tell you when there will be new content :)