You can fairly accurately judge a decade by the words it provides. In my lifetime alone, the '60s turned "hippies," "love-ins," "lunar module" and "super bowl" into household banter. The '70s gave us "stagflation" and "Watergate." In the '80s, we learned how to "gag me with a spoon," and we found the meaning of the Russian word "glasnost."
The '90s blitzed us with computer terms, some of which ("floppy disk," "300 baud modem") flamed out faster than we could roll them off our tongues. Others ("Web site" and "surfing the Net") had staying power.
It's that staying power that ends up defining a decade. Unfortunately, we won't know for awhile which of today's terms will survive to tell what really mattered in this age.
So here we sit, on the precipice of a new decade, looking back on what people only now, after 10 years, seem content to call the "aughts," awash in a tide of words that would have been gibberish to our younger selves 10 years ago. No matter. If you don't understand it, just Google it.
I vividly remember the disappointment I felt on New Year's Eve 1964. I was 5 years old but had been allowed to stay up until midnight to, as the grown-ups in my life told me, "see the new year."
I expected to see something spectacular, but all I saw as I was ushered to bed shortly after midnight was a world that looked exactly as it had before midnight.
Change, I learned then, often moves as slowly as a starfish. And yet it is relentless. As I look out the window today, I can see the type of change that would have either satisfied my curiosity or scared the pajamas off of me back then. I can tell it's no longer 1964. It's also clearly not 1999.
Consider that when this decade began, you could walk into any airport without a ticket, pass through security with your shoes on and go to a specific gate to meet someone. And has it really been only 10 years since Viagra was a new drug and Bob Dole was a serious politician?
In 1999, I would no more have considered my job description to include Tweeting, Facebooking or blogging than I would have considered it to include karaoke. Texting? Ten years ago, I would have edited out the –ing and sent it back to the writer for a revision. And if I actually had read some of today's texting shorthand, I would have seriously wondered whether the author had a substance abuse problem.
I'm guessing that most of the retrospectives you read in this newspaper and elsewhere this week will focus on the major events of the decade and how awful they were. There is much truth to that perspective.
Sept. 11, 2001, gave us the sort of immediate and long-lasting change that is rare in life, and it was a bad sort of change. For many, that date will stand as one bookend of the decade, with the other being the financial collapse that has hobbled the nation and sent Washington grasping for unprecedented power.
In the end, however, the words will be what tell us just how the decade went. The last 10 years gave us "homeland security." "It put "BlackBerrys" in a lot of pockets without giving them stains. If we wanted to do anything, there was an "app" for that. We became wired to our "iPods," the "GPS" told us where to go, we could always "TiVo" it, and "spam" was something much worse than the food that decades ago gave us a funny Monty Python routine.
It wasn't a particularly pretty decade as far as words go. The English language doesn't feel richer in any sense. But how many of these words will survive, and how many will go the way of the 8-track or a WIN button (whip inflation now!) from the '70s?
Predicting the future can be tricky at best. Who knows? The real defining moment of the decade that is passing may have happened in obscurity, only to emerge in some different context in the teens. That would be a big LOL on all of us.