Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, sometimes embarrassing series on words I'm looking up)

ought


In his Los Angeles Times column today, Michael Hiltzik writes, "Housing and easy money are unlikely to be the engines of growth in the Twenty-tens that they were in the Twenty-oughts." And, in doing so, he stirred up the mush of information I carry around in my head -- a shockingly large portion of which traces its origins to "Simpsons" episodes.

You see, Grampa Simpson uses "ought"/"aught" this way all the time -- albeit while referencing a period about a century prior. "The year was Nineteen-aught-six. The president was the divine Miss Sarah Bernhardt ..." But, without thinking about it, I had associated "ought"/"aught" with "twenty" instead of with "zero."

And I just now figured out why: In a different episode, Grampa goes off on a yarn that begins: "Now, my story begins in Nineteen-dickety-two. We had to say 'dickety' 'cause the Kaiser had stolen our word 'twenty.' I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles …"

So I had remembered that Grampa used an old-timey word to stand in for "twenty," but I had forgotten that it was one of two words he used in place of years.

Anyway, I was thrilled to see this in Hiltzik's column because, in 2009, it's the first time I've seen anyone use a name for the current decade in the way we used to say "the nineties," the "eighties" and so on. I realize that this could evoke a "Where've you been?"-type response from people who've already observed such a term. That's why I'm a little reluctant to admit all this. But I'm emboldened by the fact that the 2008 book The Stuff of Thought by all-around smart person and keen language observer Steven Pinker also notes that our culture has no nickname for our decade. So wherever I've been is also where he's been, which is not a bad place to be.

Anyhoo, here's the definition:
aught (also ought)
a cipher; zero
archaic: nothing
American Heritage Dictionary

And here's a bonus:

Recipe for June Brain Mush
4 parts sitcom
1 part scholarship
Shake vigorously for 20 years and allow to set in a room tempered by intellectual boredom and post-vacation restlessness.



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6 comments:

Blackwell said...

Ooh! I love calling it "twenty-oughts"! I really hope that winds up being what we call this decade because, yeah, it's kind of annoying to have a decade without a name.

And I do not judge you for your Simpsons prowess/addiction: I wish they would release thematic collections to aid educators (like, all the literary episodes in one convenient place). Awesome!

June Casagrande said...

I've been expressing the same sentiments since Twenty-aught-one.

(Though I vote to go with the "aught" spelling.)

A couple of times, readers here have pointed me toward some great Simpsons blogs. There's a lot of that type of info out there. If only I knew where it was ...

: )

Joel said...

This is an especially delightful post, June. Thank you. I'm a big fan of the post-vacation restlessness. Indeed there ought to be much more of it. Why can't we have work weeks and vacation allotments like the French?

Not to pick nits with you, Blackwell, but I do judge June for her Simpsons prowess--judge her excellent. In particular, superior to Simpsons-deficient grammar snobs who might pose as genuine grammar royalty.

And, yeah, "twenty-aughts" sounds great to me.

June Casagrande said...

Nice to hear from you, as always.

If only there were exciting and high-paying careers for Simpsons linguists ... I'd be at the top of my field.

Joel said...

Maybe I'm just in a contrary mood, but it strikes me that you are at (or at least near; I don't want to presume too much in my potential ignorance) the top of your field. The pay probably isn't what it should be, but, hey, consider the teachers and the social workers and the single parents and such. As far as exciting, at least it is for us. :-)

June Casagrande said...

Thank you. But this is such a tough subject to feel confident about. I'm always noticing things about grammar that have me scratching my head and saying, "Hmm. Never saw it that way before."

It's very hard to feel confident. This morning, I've actually been pondering about whether to blog about something I found in the AP Stylebook because I'm worried I'll be exposing my ignorance. But I suppose that's my schtick anyway. So here I go ...

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