The twenty-first century, a test century in cricket, a Roman century led by a centurion. Century means, as we all know, one hundred — of anything. The words come from the Latin centuria. But why bother with “century” at all? We have the word hundred! And the madness doesn’t stop there.
We have homegrown words for ten, hundred, and thousand. Yet we borrow the words for the same periods of years: decade, century, millennium? German gets by quite well with homegrown Jahrzehnt, Jahrhundert, and Jahrtausand; literally, ‘year-ten’, ‘year-hundred’, and ‘year-thousand’. So why can’t English?
Of course, in English we can just say things like “ten years” or “tens of years”. But a lot of the time this doesn’t quite work. These are descriptive phrases, when what we sometimes really want is one noun that pithily expresses the same concept. So in step decade, century, and millenium as our lexical saviours.
Yet it wasn’t always so.
Century only came into English in the 1530s with the sense of “hundred”. It only took on the meaning “period of a hundred years” in around the 1650s as a short form of the phrase “a century of years”. Likewise, decade only came into English in the mid-fifteenth century meaning “ten parts”, it acquiring the sense of “period of ten years” in the 1590s. And millennium, in the sense of any thousand year period, is only recorded from 1711.
So what did we say before then?
Confusingly, the Old English word for decade was hund. Century was ældu, as in eld, elder, old. Compare Modern Idelandic öld ‘century’.
These wouldn’t work for nowadays English. So what should we do?
- When you can swap decade, century, or millenium out for the following phrases with no awkwardness or unnaturalness, then do so: ten years, tens of years, a hundred years, hundreds of years, a thousand years, thousands of years.
- When you mean a group or amount of, then say tenfold, a group of ten, hundredfold, a group of hundred, thousandfold, a group of a thousand.
- When you want to say “the twentieth century” (and so on), say “the 1900s” instead — like in Swedish.
- You can also say ton for hundred, especially in money or speed or sport.
And when these don’t work, I say that Germanising “year-ten” is too un-English. I put forward the following.
1. Ten-year, hundred-year, thousand-year
“I met your Mum three ten-years ago”: cannot be mistaken for “ten years ago”.
“The Battle of Hastings was almost a thousand-year ago”: cannot be mistaken for “a thousand years ago”
“The twentieth hundred-year was a time of great change”: cannot be mistaken for anything.
2. I also put forward, on the analogy of “century of years” being simplified to “century”, these: ten, hundred, thousand.
“It’s been hundreds since England had a separate parliament”
“Tens ago, mobile phones was science fiction”
“Stonehenge was built thousands ago”
3. Swedish also provides a good model with hundratal: hundred-deal. Deal of course can mean amount or quantity, as in “a good deal of rain”.
ten-deal, hundred-deal, thousand-deal.
© 2016-2017 Bryan A. J. Parry
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