Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The words "nineteen-hundreds" to me mean strictly 1900–1909. I've noticed several times that people, invariably North American, use these words to mean "the twentieth century", or 1900–1999, or something like that. Similarly for "the eighteen hundreds" used to mean "the nineteenth century" and so on.

Is this an example of a misuse of words by people who have heard and then misunderstood them, or is this actually an established usage in America? Secondly, if it is not a misuse, how would said Americans refer to the period of 1900–1909?

share|improve this question
I've never heard the term nineteen-hundreds to mean just the first ten years. –  Armstrongest Aug 23 '10 at 19:49
The first decade was probably called the 1900s while it was unfolding. It become ambiguous after that... –  Chris Noe Aug 24 '10 at 21:23
The 1900s for the entire century is indeed an established usage in America. But we sometimes also use it for the decade 1900–1909. Is there much ambiguity in calling both the decade and the century the 1900s? Isn't it usually clear from context which you are talking about? –  Peter Shor Jun 30 '11 at 14:30
My answer would have been that "in the nineteen hundreds" isn't really a set phrase yet, in American English. It sounds really strange to me. "In the eighteen/seventeen/... hundreds" - yes. But not yet the nineteen hundreds. I think it's just ambiguous. –  James Moore Aug 23 '11 at 19:58
@ChrisNoe much s the last decade was called "the naughties", that term was sometimes used for the first decade of the 1900s, but "the aughts" and "the naughts" were more often used. As with "the naugties" it was generally considered as not 100% serious in tone. –  Jon Hanna Jan 26 '13 at 17:08

10 Answers 10

Although people do use it mean 1900–1909, it isn't a misuse to use it to mean 1900–1999. Another way to refer to the first decade would be "just after the turn of the century", or "at the turn of the century". I would say 1920s to mean 1920–1929 though.

If you do a corpus query (COCA) you'll find that 1900s is almost always preceded by early. (121 times out of 149 hits). This qualification leads me to think that most authors think that the 1900s is a large time frame, that benefits from further qualification. Furthermore, in many cases the context shows that "early 1900s" refers to years outside of 1900–1909.

share|improve this answer
I would definitely say it is a misuse to use it to mean 1900-1999, like calling an attractive woman with no singing ability a diva or something. –  delete Aug 15 '10 at 14:18
I've expanded my answer to include some results from corpus queries. –  Chris Aug 16 '10 at 9:47
+1 excellent answer. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 17 '10 at 0:01
To expand on this a tad, the further we get into the 21st century I suspect it will grow more and more common to refer to the 20th century as the 1900s just as we do with the 1800s, the 1700s and so on. –  MrHen Oct 10 '13 at 20:14
-1 "1900s is almost always preceded by early" in fact, should have alerted you to the author's intended clarification, which would have otherwise been unnecessary. In other words, you logical deduction is not just invalid but is the converse of what it should be. Hope that helps. (I missed this post earlier.) –  Kris Jan 9 '14 at 12:06

I think of any "hundreds" term as representing the entire century and depending on the specificity demanded in the situation use "early nineteen hundreds" or "late nineteen hundreds" to reference a period. When referring to the first decade of the twentieth century I might say "the nineteen aughts," perhaps a little pretentious , but I like the sound of it.

It's worth noting, though, that I rarely hear "nineteen hundreds" used to refer to anything later than the earliest portion of the century, perhaps because it's so recent and most people can still remember portions of the latter decades. I hear "eighteen hundreds" much more commonly used to refer to that entire century.

share|improve this answer
It seems more likely to me that some people heard the word nineteen hundreds and started misusing it to mean the twentieth century. –  delete Aug 17 '10 at 0:48
I'm curious, on what basis? It still doesn't seem at all clear to me that its use in reference to the first decade of the twentieth century is any more correct than as a reference to the century as a whole. –  cori Aug 17 '10 at 5:33

In the US at least, there's enough variation in the use of this term as to render it imprecise to the point of being useless.

share|improve this answer

I've never known "nineteen hundreds" to mean anything but the 20th century. I come from a Computer Science background, so I understand why logically it would seem to be "nineteen hundreds" --> 1900-1909, "nineteen hundred and tens" --> 1910-1919, etc., but I haven't heard it used to refer only to 1900-1909.

As to how to refer to that particular period... what about nineteen-ohs? Like "twenties, tens, ohs..."

share|improve this answer
Coming from math, I would say that the nineteen-hundreds are all years that have a 19 on the spot of the hundreds in decimal representation (or better a one on the thousands, and a nine on the hundreds). You defeat your own logic in the last sentence, as taking the pattern would lead to nineteen hundred and ohs. –  malach Oct 14 '10 at 9:23
1900 was the last year of the 19th century, not the first year of the 20th. –  tchrist Apr 20 '14 at 21:51

There seems to be continuing confusion about the use of the term 1900s, and an increasing tendency even among people who are well-read to use it to refer (approximately) to the 20th century. I would suggest that both terms be dropped to avoid confusion, and the term "the nineteen somethings" should be used officially to describe this period.

share|improve this answer
This is new to me. Do you have any references that point to what you call an error in use of '1900s'? What exactly is wrong with it (and/or 20thc)? –  Mitch Jan 26 '13 at 16:42

In my readings I've never found "nineteen hundreds" to be intended to refer to 1900-1909. Generally, writers will specify the date range as I have just done: "1900-1909".

If you want to know what the shortened name should be, the least ambiguous one I've come across is "aught" (second defn.) so 1905 would become "nineteen aught five". The phrasing is not very common, but it is correct. If the 30s are "thirties", 20s are "twenties", and "10s" are "teens", then the "00s" are "aughts". Both the last groups are fairly uncommon, however, probably because of the awkwardness of saying "nineteen teens" or "twenty aughts".

share|improve this answer

At least here in America it is clear to me that "the twelve hundreds" means 1200 to 1299. And similarly up to the 1800s. If "the nineteen hundreds" is not clearly used in this way yet, it probably will be in the far future. Similarly, I guess it is becoming more common to hear "the turn of the century" to mean the years around 2000 rather than 1900.

A bit off topic: "the two thousands" means: (a) 2000 to 2009; (b) 2000 to 2099; or (c) 2000 to 2999 ??

share|improve this answer
I say the answer should be C; If you wanted to name 2000-2099 you'd say "The twenty-hundreds," following the existing pattern. (Realistically, we'll only find out in about a thousand year's time, so any answer given now will be either speculation or evidence of time travel.) –  user867 Jan 9 '14 at 7:12

It's not 'Two thousands', it's Twenty Hundreds.

In regard to the decades, the Twenty Hundreds first decade is 2001-2010.

Because why? You can't start on a zero.

So the first decade of the Nineteen Hundreds is 1901-1910. And so on.

share|improve this answer
You’re going to have to provide documentation for that position, please. –  tchrist Oct 10 '13 at 15:03
Counting from 1 is not an unusual proposition (except for Napoleon and Pol Pot, perhaps); but twenty hundreds? In the UK, the years 2000-2010 were "two thousand and..." not "twenty-". –  Andrew Leach Oct 10 '13 at 15:05
This is wrong. "Nineteen hundreds" most certainly includes 1900 itself. –  MrHen Oct 10 '13 at 20:11

It was perfectly simple and logical until Americans screwed it up.

The decade begining nineteen twenty is called the nineteen twenties.

The decade begining nineteen ten is called the nineteen tens.

The decade begining nineteen hundred is called the nineteen hundreds.

The CENTURY begining nineteen hundred is called the TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Simple, no confusion

share|improve this answer
What's the problem with this answer? A disagreement with the answer is certainly not a reason to down vote. –  Kris Jan 9 '14 at 11:57

The figure supplied in the mind is always the one before all the zeros, so the late 1460s = the last years before 1470, the late 1400s = the last years or decades before 1500, and the late 1000s = the last years or decades (or centuries) before 2000. If you want to designate the first decade of a century (e.g. 1900–1909) in this style (i.e. the style of 'the nineteen forties'), you just say 'the nineteen tens' or 'the 1910s'. NOT 'the 1900s' – and certainly NOT 'the 2000' to mean 'the 2010s'!!!

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist yesterday

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?