Ours has always been a prodigious language. Since Beowulf first opened his trap English has zealously created, viagra 40mg or stolen, phlebologist more words than any of its rivals. This great mongrel tongue has a word or two for nearly everything. But we have failed to agree on a term to name this passing decade.
That we could not decide on the Noughties, the Oughties or, even more jarring, the “Oh-Ohs” was odd. We Anglophones are hardly reserved in the naming of things. Further, according to many lexicographers, this past decade produced more words in English than the entire century preceding it.
Nonetheless, we failed to conclusively declare ourselves of the Noughties, the Oughties or Zeros. This is due, perhaps, to our emerging reluctance to declare association with anything at all. Unlike the constituents of the 20th century, we are not joiners. We think of ourselves as individuals; we think of ourselves as unique.
Today we rest uniquely flavoured coffee in the cup-holders of uniquely tailored cars. Uniquely designed playlists are the soundtrack to a private life uniquely informed by aggregated news. We choose the unique commentary, vehicle and music we suspect represent us best.
This decade we all became terribly special. Even, and especially, when ordering flavoured drinks.
There are those who appear to relish the hyper-niched market of goods and ideas. These people wield terms like “frappe” and enunciate their order with gusto. Then, there are those of us who just want our coffee without hazelnut, oat milk or discussion.
But even this group of laggards knows to specify a preference. In an age that overtrades in taste, ordering a flat white is a genuine risk to our social capital. We uphold our value in being unique, in uttering: ”two pump vanilla non-fat extra hot”.
On one reading this is the market’s positive recognition of individual rights. On another it is more alienating and tedious than an afternoon with Ayn Rand. For some the blissful seclusion of individuality can prove exhausting. Eventually many of us may find a civic life appealing.
But this decade we acquired the knack of severing ourselves from our fellows. For nearly 10 years we have been more connected to the iPod than the responsibilities of citizenship.
This nameless decade did not deliver the idea of the individual. But it gave us new means by which to mark our individual sovereignty. Bespoke footwear, favourite foods and top 10 tips in travel became units in the decade’s premier currency. The things we liked, catalogued on our social media profiles, held in iPods and listed on credit card receipts became the register of our moral condition.
This decade we performed an ardent solo dance. We did not dance, to paraphrase a chipper Mark Twain, like no one was watching. We danced like everyone was watching. But, given the probability these others were also dancing with their iPods, we really didn’t give too much of a hoot. Who cares what they think, after all? My taste and my sovereignty were the only arbiters of the decade. I marched to the beat of a drummer bought from iTunes. And everyone else marched to theirs.
These days the goods and media that surround us are made to order. The communities that surround us are, by contrast, increasingly formless. Confined by the keeper of taste to individual cells, we do not participate in community directly. The sights and sounds of the world barely reach our bespoke prisons. In this age of machines all we have are shadows, echoes and the idea of our individual taste.
Outside of social media like Facebook, our willingness to identify with any kind of group has dwindled. These days we prefer no fellowship at all. We would much rather have an iPod. Or a two pump vanilla non-fat extra hot.
There is no single word to describe this peculiar time. Terms like bail-out, sub-prime and sustainability were among the tens of thousands of terms that emerged to describe the era. Bloated, troubled conditions demanded a vocabulary to match. Still, English failed to deliver its reliable pathology and name this diseased decade.
Perhaps we were too busy programming our iPods to bother. Perhaps we feared that in the decisive act of naming them, we would surrender ourselves to the times. And then, where would we be? Far less unique in all likelihood. And uncomfortably aware that the self is formed more by the connection to others than to a portable media device.
Helen Razer is a freelance writer.