The Grammarphobia Blog

Naughty, naughty

Q: I’ve noticed when listening to US podcasts that the first decade of the 2000s is often referred to as the “aughts.” Here in the UK, the much more pleasing “noughties” seems to have gained most traction. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on stateside?

A: It’s true that Americans generally don’t use the term “noughties,” and it doesn’t appear in any of the standard American dictionaries.

We can only guess why. Perhaps it sounds too much like a coy version of “naughties,” as in “Naughty, naughty!” (We’ll have more to say about “naughty” later.)

The term “noughties” is found in all the standard British-based dictionaries, though some of them label it “humorous” or “informal.”

The Macmillan, Collins, Longman, and Oxford online dictionaries all define the “noughties” as the decade between 2000 and 2009. Another British dictionary, Cambridge, defines “noughties” as “the period of years between 00 and 10 in any century, usually 2000–2010,” and provides this example: “They were born in the noughties and grew up completely at ease with computer technology.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, favors the narrower definition. It says that “noughties,” preceded by the article “the,” means “the decade from 2000 to 2009.”

The OED spells the word “noughties” in its entry, and has a first example of that spelling from 1990. But it also includes a citation from 1989 spelled “naughties.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noughties” is from a British newspaper: “After the Eighties and the Nineties, what should we be calling the next decade? The Noughties?” (The Independent, London, Jan. 19, 1990.)

And its sole citation for “naughties” is from an American column about what to call the decade after the 90s: “The Naughties was suggested by 40 readers.” (William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1989.)

All the rest of the OED citations come from Britain or New Zealand and spell the term “noughties.”

The dictionary says the term was formed by adding “-ties” to “nought” or “naught,” in imitation of such other words as “twenties” and “thirties.” Oxford adds that the formation was “perhaps influenced by naughty nineties,” which it defines as “the 1890s considered as a period of moral laxity and sexual licence.”

The word spelled “naught” or “nought” is a noun for a “zero” or a pronoun meaning “nothing,” as we wrote on our blog in 2013. It’s the negative form of “aught” in its original sense: “anything.” When used for a “zero,” it’s mainly “naught” in the US and “nought” in the UK.

But “aught,” like “ought,” can also be a noun for “zero.” In this sense, the term is chiefly spelled “aught” in American English and “ought” in British English, as in dates like “nineteen-ought-nine” for 1909, a usage we discussed in 2018.

The use of “ought” and “aught” for “zero” emerged in the early 1820s, the OED says, “probably” as variants of “nought” and “naught.” (Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., suggests that “nought” was “a misdivision of a nought as an ought.”)

Usage was mixed early on, as this OED citation shows: “It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher aught and all Oxford scholars call it nought” (from Frank, an 1822 novel by Maria Edgeworth).

As for the adjective “naughty,” it also has something to do with “nothing.” It was derived from the pronoun “naught,” the OED says, and when it first appeared in the 14th century it meant “having or possessing nothing; poor, needy.”

The dictionary’s only examples with this meaning are from the same source, William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (circa 1378). The Middle English poem uses both “nauȝty” and the comparative form, “nauȝtier.”

By the middle of the 1400s, Oxford says, “naughty” meant “morally bad, wicked,” and in the following century it came to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.”

In the 1600s, the more familiar meaning of the word appeared: “disobedient, badly behaved.” In this sense, the OED says, the word is “used esp. of a child, but also humorously or depreciatively of an adult or an adult’s behaviour.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word in this sense was sometimes “reduplicated for emphasis,” the dictionary says. Such repetitions, it adds, were frequently used as interjections intended as mild reprimands, “often with ironic or depreciative connotation, esp. of adult behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Emily’s Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847): “This is your last ride, till papa comes back. I’ll not trust you over the threshold again, you naughty, naughty girl.”

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