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Twenty-what? Two thousand who?

Saying the new year out loud

Welcome to 2012!

OK, pop quiz: When you silently read that opening sentence to yourself, how did you pronounce the name of the year? Did you a) think “two thousand twelve,” b) think “twenty-twelve,” or c) stop, paralyzed with uncertainty?

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If you chose option c, you’re like a lot of English speakers, who seem profoundly unresolved on something that might seem very basic: what the year is called.

If all we cared about were ease of pronunciation, then the quick “twenty-twelve” would be the obvious choice. (One could imagine the old Strunk and White dictum “Omit Needless Words” modified as “Omit Needless Syllables.”) But not everyone is on board with the more succinct “twenty-” pronunciation of the names of years.

This comes as a surprise to some observers of English usage. From 2001 to 2009, it made sense to use the longer “two thousand” version of year names. The template was actually set way back in 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001” was marketed as “two thousand and one,” not “twenty oh one” — despite the precedent of pronouncing 1901 as “nineteen oh one” (or “nineteen aught one” if you want to sound particularly old-timey).

But two years ago, when the calendar turned to 2010 and we left the aughts behind, many assumed that the “two thousand” style would take its leave. In January 2010, when the American Dialect Society held its Word of the Year voting, the “twenty-” prefix was selected as Most Likely to Succeed, with the expectation that 2010 would be called “twenty-ten,” 2011 would be “twenty-eleven,” and so forth.

David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, made a similar prediction at the time. “Based on past centuries, speech is more likely to go for the shorter version,” he wrote on his blog. “It’s rare to hear ‘in nineteen hundred and ten.’ And I’ve never heard Tchaikovsky’s overture called ‘eighteen hundred and twelve.’”

As we grow to think of the 21st century as an era with a distinct identity, it stands to reason that we would use the “twenty-” style as a way to mark years as part of that era, just as we have done with the “eighteen-” and “nineteen-” prefixes. Though pronunciation has moved in that direction, the “two thousand” habit has proved remarkably difficult to break after a decade of use.

Broadcasters, who are often a useful bellwether of pronunciation, haven’t been entirely consistent. CNN’s Candy Crowley told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland at the dawn of the decade that the shorter pronunciation saves valuable time for television correspondents. “When you’re doing a two-minute and 20-second piece, you pick up seconds wherever you can,” Crowley said. “’Two-thousand and twelve’ is five syllables. ‘Twenty-twelve’ is three.”

Today Voice of America recommends the “twenty-” version for years since 2010 in its style guide. National Public Radio, however, takes a more flexible approach. Stuart Seidel, NPR’s deputy managing editor, says the network tends to let individual broadcasters choose whatever they can say most clearly. “A policy dictating one or the other way of saying the year would not serve our listeners well,” he said.

This year, though, my bold prognostication is that the “two thousand” people will finally give in and join the “twenty” crowd. Part of the reason is sheer euphony: “twenty-twelve” has that pleasing “tw-” alliteration. But another major reason for the shift is that the news of the year will be dominated by two major events that have been branded with the shorter “twenty-twelve” label: the 2012 presidential elections and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The organizers of the 2012 Olympics already got a jump on this trend. When London was unveiled as the host of this year’s summer games back in 2005, officials immediately began talking about “London 2012,” which they pronounced “twenty-twelve.” On British television, there’s even a comedy series about preparations for the Olympics, and the title spells out the accepted pronunciation: “Twenty Twelve.”

Americans, meanwhile, will be hearing endless reports about the 2012 presidential campaign season, and news announcers are fixing on “twenty-twelve” as the preferred style. (This goes for fake news announcers, too: on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart has been saying “twenty-twelve” in his running feature “Indecision 2012.”)

Those who continue to use the longer form may be doing it out of a force of habit, or they may want to sound a bit more formal, or portentous. When the apocalyptic movie “2012” was released a few years ago (turning Mayan calendrical prophesies about the end of the world into a big-budget disaster flick), the trailers called it “two thousand and twelve” — perhaps as a callback to the epic nature of Kubrick’s “2001.”

Even for nondoomsayers, I feel confident that “twenty-twelve” will take hold as the common name for the year, with “twenty-thirteen” to follow. And once we’ve settled on the names of years, perhaps we can finally reach agreement about names of decades. The previous decade never was given a name that everyone could rally behind (“the aughts” being the least objectionable of the alternatives), and this decade hasn’t started off much more auspiciously. It might take another year for “the teens” to catch on — after all, the century won’t technically be a teenager until 2013.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.
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