Monday, December 18, 2006


[posted by Callimachus]

When did people start to refer to times past, and zeitgeists, by reference to decades?

I had a vague sense, from much reading, that this began in the late 1800s. But tonight I pulled down some volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary to check first references. Now, the OED is not entirely reliable for 19th century usages (it's not difficult to find ones of earlier vintage than theirs), but in this case the cluster was remarkable: twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, all the way up through the list, the first dates of use fall between about 1881 and 1885. In some cases the usage is set off in quotation marks, suggesting the authors knew they were using a new term.

I still don't know why. What happened then to make people think like that?