Enough Already With The 21st-Century Rhetoric YET ANOTHER Y2K PROBLEM
By Timothy Noah

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As we approach the 21st century, the nation's pontificators are girding themselves for a challenge: finding a forward-looking rhetorical cliche to replace "as we approach the 21st century."

Oh, sure, sticklers may insist that "as we approach the 21st century" and "into the 21st century" ought to be available until Jan. 1, 2001. But such calendrical fundamentalism overlooks two overpowering realities. The first is that the great majority of people are going to call time on the 20th century next New Year's Eve. (With all those zeroes in 2000, who could resist?) Since the whole point of using any cliche is to be crowd-pleasing, speechifiers won't want to risk getting hooted down by calendrical nonfundamentalists for using the phrase after the masses conclude the 21st century has begun.

The second overpowering reality is that by Jan. 1, 2000, the whole conceit of blasting rhetorically into the 21st century will be all used up, like one of those rocket stages that burn off in the upper atmosphere. Let's go to the Nexis news database.

According to Nexis, the phrase "as we approach the 21st century" appeared in U.S. news sources 277 times in 1998; 273 times in 1997; 237 times in 1996; 202 times in 1995; 111 times in 1994; 74 times in 1993; 65 times in 1992; 57 times in 1991; and 69 times in 1990. Note the steady increase every year (except for the anomalous 1990, in which the dawn of a new decade no doubt heightened awareness that the next decade would inaugurate a new century). It seems safe to guess that when the 1999 tally is in, the phrase "as we approach the 21st century" will have been uttered and quoted or otherwise published or broadcast approximately once for every day of the year.

Recent acceleration has been significantly more dramatic for the simpler and more ubiquitous phrase "into the 21st century." During the first two weeks of 1999, it appeared in U.S. news sources 1,335 times, compared with 917 times during the comparable period in 1998. Much of this increase is due to U.S. millenarian-in-chief Bill Clinton. Nearly one-fifth of the 1,335 news stories using "into the 21st century" during the first two weeks of this year also included "Clinton." That doesn't mean, of course, that Clinton said "into the 21st century" 275 times during this period; the tally includes reports from multiple sources on individual Clinton utterances (and also includes instances where Clinton is not being quoted but rather is mentioned in proximity to the phrase). Still, it does suggest that Clinton uses the cliche an awful lot. Clinton's State of the Union address, which was titled "Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century" and which contained 22 mentions of the phrase "21st century," amply illustrates the president's rhetorical bent.

So, what gives? When queried about the frequency with which Clinton utters the phrase "the 21st century," one White House speechwriter confessed, "the last sentence of just about every speech I write ends with 'the 21st century,'" partly because it "gives a certain grand sweep" but also because "it's a signal to the POTUS that the speech is over and there's not a page missing."

--Timothy Noah

TIMOTHY NOAH writes about politics for Slate and George.