I was just thinking what will happen to our reference of "the 50s", "the 60s" when we get to the end of this century.

So I began wondering if this collision has already happened back when the 20th century was still unfolding. Did people use to refer to 1850 as "the fifties" and such?

  • 6
    Hang on, anyone have grandparents to ask?
    – Russell
    Jul 27, 2012 at 15:11

3 Answers 3


According to Google Ngram Viewer, the words have some historical usage. enter image description here

However, it is hard to know whether the words refer to decades, age groups or other "brackets". However, "eighties" and "nineties" do show some sort of a 100-year wave shape, taking off from around 1890, suggesting that the usage of these phrases started around then. There is a wave shape for all words except "twenties" and "thirties" which seem to mainly be used for the 1920s and 1930s.

Clicking on the year search terms at the bottom of the Ngram page linked above suggests mixed usage with at least some decade references for the 90s as 1890s (the only Google Books search I tried)

See also the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_decades which has a brief description of naming, as well as links to articles on individual decades (such as the 1890s)


One example: the wave of German (and other European) immigrants that came to the United States in 1848 were referred to as the "Forty-Eighters."

And the gold miners who went to California in 1849 were known as the "Forty-niners."

So yes, each century refers to their own contemporaneous "Forties," "Fifties," etc.

  • Do you know the first known use of "Forty-eighters"?
    – Luke_0
    Jul 26, 2012 at 13:13
  • 1
    @Luke:Was John Philip Sousa in that group?
    – Tom Au
    Jul 26, 2012 at 13:20
  • 2
    He was born in 1854 in DC, so no. He was also of Portuguese and Bavarian descent. The term "forty-niners was not used until 1853. BTW the OP is asking about decades-- not years.
    – Luke_0
    Jul 26, 2012 at 13:24
  • @Luke - That makes sense. Before a few years had passed, how were they to know that it was meerly a one-year phenomenon?
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 26, 2012 at 13:47

In one of Kipling's short stories he refers back to the '60s - 1860s. If such a conventional man did so, it must have been commonplace, at least among the British in India.

  • 7
    It would help to have an exact quote, or at least the name of the story.
    – o0'.
    May 29, 2015 at 8:58

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