This seems like a good word for this evening, for a few reasons. First, it’s the end of a decade, the 201st, if you start counting from the beginning of AD 1 (which is the basis for our numeration of years – AD or, if you think AD is dead, CE). Of course, many people prefer to count in what, without reference to the beginning of the count, may seem a more obvious or user-friendly way: going by the second digit from the right, just as we do with years of our own lives (for instance, I’m in my forties). We refer readily to the 1980s, for instance, by which we mean 1980 through 1989, not 1981 through 1990.
But – and this is the second reason – many people think that (just like use of circa (ca.) to mean “established in”) such use of decade is evidence that our language has decayed, or anyway our mental acuity in its regard has – we’re brain dead, can’t add, etc. A year ago, many people were writing indignant screeds declaring that it was not the end of a decade, and that those who said it was were idiots.
Well, as I explained at the time in “When does the new decade begin?“, those indignant people were really face-egg-nant people, because they were, quite simply, wrong. They were displaying mental inflexibility and an evident desire to beat others into submission with rigid rules. The fact that today is the end of a decade does not mean that a year ago today was not – it was just the end of a different decade, one that overlaps this one by nine years. A decade is any set of ten years (in fact, originally – in the 1600s – a decade was any set of ten anythings, and a set of ten years was, even into the 1800s, said as a decade of years). The 1980s were a decade. You’re being dumb if you say they weren’t, or say they didn’t end on December 31, 1989. Ditto the oh-ohs on December 31, 2009, and ditto the onesies on December 31, 2019. So this popular usage of decade is not proof of the language’s decadence.
Ah, and there’s reason number three: It’s New Year’s Eve, party time. Let’s be decadent. Now, admittedly, decade and decadent are not cognate; decade is from Latin for “ten” and decadent is from Latin for “falling down”. And decadence may be related to cadence, but the cadence is different when you say the cadence.
And how about the cadence of decade? It’s not a whole lot if you say the word (it’s almost a spondee, and sounds like someone who helps you build a deck), but you can also play it on your piano: D-E-C-A-D-E. I leave the rhythm to you, but it’s a an energetic little relation, more spry and tight than the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind but less spooky and high-strung than Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells theme used in The Exorcist. The question is, when you repeat it, do you play the D-E twice in a row or overlap? Is the second D-E a pick-up tag, going where otherwise there might be B? (And at the end, do you play the B instead? Or end on C or E or A? Say, what mode is this? Phrygian? Dorian? Fridge-doorian? It has a certain magnetism.)
Well, we know the decades loop around, like de back to de, each count arbitrarily beginning again, just as centuries do (in Roman numerals, C), just as millennia do (in Roman numerals, D and D add to make M), just as the Mayan long count will in 2012… An arbitrary endpoint imbued with meaning entirely by cultural choice. Which is not to say it’s meaningless; meaning is what minds create in interaction. Which is good. I like creation of meaning. Destruction or limitation of meaning, not so much.