The Grammarphobia Blog

2001: A speech odyssey

Q: Just recently, I heard someone pronounce 1901 as “nineteen-one” instead of “nineteen-oh-one.” What is the origin of this practice and is it correct? It sounds so weird to me.

A: There’s no right or wrong here. When a year ends in a number from 01 to 09, the ending can be pronounced with or without “oh” for the zero.

The form with “oh” (as in “nineteen-oh-one”) is usual in today’s English, but the clipped version (“nineteen-one”) was once more common.

The word “oh” is usually an interjection or exclamation. But as we mentioned in a 2013 post, in modern English it’s also used as a noun to represent the pronunciation of the number 0 (zero).

This use of “oh” in dates and other numbers began in the early 20th century and is “probably” based on the spelling of the exclamation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Oxford says that the spelling “oh” is a variant of a much earlier spelling, the capital letter “O.” It, too, is used to represent both an interjection—as in “O my!”—and the number zero, though not in dates.)

The OEDs earliest written example of “oh” in a date is from the December 1908 issue of a trade journal, the Railroad Telegrapher: “Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping to see everyone out in nineteen oh nine.”

We found an earlier example from the same year with “oh” in quotation marks, indicating it was a new usage at the time: “The Nineteen ‘Oh’ Eight Fair Will Be Better Than Ever” (part of a headline for an article about the Colorado State Fair, published in the Aspen Democrat, May 21, 1908).

Later examples in the OED also show “oh” used for zero in the time of day (“oh-eight-thirty-hours,” 1948); in weaponry (“three oh three” for a .303 rifle cartridge, sometime before 1961); and in sports scores (“oh for nine,” 1998).

In earlier times, as we mentioned, “oh” was not included in pronunciations of years with a zero. By way of illustration, here’s a scrap of 19th-century stage dialogue in which a history instructor resumes a lesson with his pupil, a young duke:

Obenhaus: Take up the lesson where we had to stop, —in eighteen five.
The Duke: Yes, eighteen five.
Obenhaus: We’ve seen in eighteen six …
The Duke: Your pardon; do you mean that nothing marked that year?
Obenhaus: Hein? What? What date?
The Duke: Why, eighteen five.

The passage is from an English translation of Edmund Rostand’s 1899 play L’Aiglon (The Eaglet).

We found more examples in old issues of Arbutus, Indiana University’s student yearbook.

This is from 1901: “When Soph and Freshman cease to scrap, / And the Junior’s work is done, / Our class will be remembered yet— / The Class of Nineteen-one; / The noble Class of Nineteen-one, / Of Nineteen-one.”

And this is from 1906: “Rickety Rix! Rickety Rix! / Here’s to the class of nineteen six.”

The usage appeared in both British and American fiction.

Rudyard Kipling used it in one of his naval stories: ” In Nineteen One, mark you, I was in the Carthusian, back in Auckland Bay again.” (From “Mrs. Bathurst,” published in 1904 in both the Metropolitan Magazine, New York, and the Windsor Magazine, London.)

And this example is from the American novel You Can’t Go Home Again, written by Thomas Wolfe in the early 1930s and published posthumously in 1940: “ ‘I should think it was done in nineteen-one or two—wasn’t it, Esther? … Around nineteen-one, wasn’t it?’ … ‘Oh the picture! No, Steve. It was done in nineteen … in nineteen-six.”

In another usage from earlier times, “ought” was often used for zero in speech and written dialogue (as in “nineteen-ought-one”).

The use of “ought” as a noun to mean a zero was first recorded in 1821, the OED says, adding that it was “probably” a variant of the noun “nought.”

The dictionary has only one example, from 1979, for “ought” indicating zero in a year (“ought eight,” short for 1908, in William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed).

But we found this one in a work of 19th-century political reporting, Egypt Under the British (1896), by H. Freeman Wood:

“ ‘The barracks are close to the place where our regiment, the 28th, landed in eighteen-ought-two.’ ‘Eighteen hundred and eighty-two?’ ‘No; eighteen-ought-two, when we beat the French.’ ‘Eighteen-ought-one,’ corrected the other corporal, more accurate in his dates.”

This “ought” usage was also known in Australia, as this early 20th-century newspaper ad shows: “Let it be known that Nettlefold’s have prepared for Summer Nineteen ought five, an extremely dignified (you may call it ‘swagger’) line of Gentlemen’s Tailoring, as worn by gentlemen.” From the Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania), Dec. 29, 1904.

And “ought” was used similarly in American advertising around the same time, as in this notice by a hat manufacturer: “FALL SEASON NINETEEN OUGHT SIX ON DISPLAY AND SALE.” From the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, Aug. 13, 1906.

Moving ahead a hundred years, those who refer to the current century as beginning with “twenty” invariably use “oh” for numbers in the first decade—”twenty-oh-one” and so on. Otherwise the year would sound like “twenty-one,” “twenty-two,” etc.

Those who prefer “two thousand” for this century seem to use both “two thousand one” and “two thousand and one,” a usage that may have been influenced by the pronunciation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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