Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Thought on Ought

Consider the ought.

When was the last time you saw the word "ought" in print? Myself, I can't recall, but it must have been a long time because, well it looks odd to me. So long in fact that I wasn't sure how to spell it and, hold on to your pippik, I found out you can spell the same word as "aught." How many words do we have two legit spellings for, I wonder. Not a lot, I'm thinking, but that undertaking smells like serious research, so, maybe another time. Back to ought, which I prefer over aught.

This is an auxiliary verb. What? More research. Hmmm, an aux verb (keepin' it short) is a word that helps a main verb. We all know main verbs as those that you can generally put a "to" in front of, such as to fish, to clean, to eat, among thousands of others. So it works like this: ought to fish, ought to clean, ought to eat. Turns out "oughtn't" and "hadn't ought to" are perfectly legitimate uses of the word. And all this time I thought I was cool by slinging southern slang.

Uh-oh, there's more--ought is a modal auxiliary verb, of which there are ten: can, could, may, might, ought, shall, should, will, would, and must. I love this part--they are all called "defective," because as verbs, they can't stand alone. Shoot, if they were people, we'd have to find 6 or 7 words in a phrase to describe this attribute because, well, "defective" is just ugly.

I got to thinking about ought not as a verb but as a synonym for zero, another legit use of the word, because when we enter 2010, we are about to leave the ought-single digit years behind. In 2000 we turned a millennium, but we also entered the special ought years, those with a zero in front of the last digit.

It seems to me this should have been a particularly special decade, like it was for my grandparents. They were born in the 1880's so their wild twenties were spent in 1900 through ought-nine. When they wanted to impress me with hardships, the impossible, the incredible, etc, they'd start out by saying "back in ought-six..." followed by 20 feet of snow or somesuch.

I think they set me up, because I felt like these should have been watershed years by virtue of their "ought" and so far I don't think of them that way. I should have known this would happen though. It started with Prince saying "Party like it's 1999." I didn't see a particularly big deal with that party when it finally came. Prince probably did though, he'd been thinking about it since he wrote that damn song in '82.

To be fair, these years were certainly eventful in a bad way--9/11, tsunami, Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans, gas over $4/gallon, and in at least one good way with our first minority president, just to name a few. But correct me if I'm wrong, nobody refers to those events as in ought-one, or ought-seven or ought-eight. If anything, they say oh-one, or oh-seven. That's just not evocative enough, we really need ought.

I take some solace in the fact it's not too late to use ought. Unlike the turn of the previous century, the turn of the millennium will allow us to say ought-ten, ought-eleven, and even ought-thirteen if Nostradamus, the Mayan Calendar and the Discovery Channel are wrong.

So, I'll give this ought thing another look in a few years if I'm still around; I'd hate to think my grandparents snookered me.

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