1990 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 113 words with first citations from 1990. In that year, bicurious people might seek out a polyamorous relationship; malware, applets, and hentai could be found on the World Wide Web; one could give a friend a shout-out or engage in smack-talking; and university professors on the gray list kept lecturing about DWEMs.

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Events of 1990:

  • January: The United States invades Panama to depose dictator Manuel Noreiga; Time, Inc. and Warner Communications merge; McDonald’s opens a restaurant in Moscow; actors Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner die.
  • February: Nelson Mandela is released from prison; the Voyager-1 spacecraft returns the “pale blue dot” image of the earth in space; the United Kingdom and Argentina restore diplomatic relations;
  • March: Fashion designer Halston dies.
  • April: The Hubble space telescope is launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery; an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs opens in Cincinnati amid protests; actor Greta Garbo dies.
  • May: Microsoft releases Windows 3.0; entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. and muppeteer Jim Henson die.
  • June: The United States and the Soviet Union sign a treaty to end production of chemical weapons and to destroy existing stocks; Russia declares its sovereignty over its own territory.
  • July: Imelda Marcos of the Philippines is found guilty in U. S. District Court or racketeering and fraud charges.
  • August: Iraq invades Kuwait and U. S. troops deploy to Saudi Arabia in response; psychologist B. F. Skinner dies.
  • September: Liberian dictator Samuel Doe is assassinated.
  • October: East and West Germany reunite; U. S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay; composer Leonard Bernstein; jazz musician Art Blakey; philosopher Louis Althusser; television exectutive William Paley; and band leader Xavier Cugat die.
  • November: The United Nations authorizes the use of military force against Iraq if it does not withdraw from Kuwait.
  • December: Lech Walesa is elected president of Poland; composer Aaron Copland dies.

The words of 1990:

applet, n. The term for a small software application makes its debut. Often associated with the Java programming language, the first citation in OED uses applet to refer to the accessory applications (e.g., Paintbrush, Notepad, Clock) that are packaged with the Microsoft Windows operating system.

bi-curious, adj. The term for a heterosexual interested in homosexual sex appears in a 1990 personal ad in The Village Voice.

burn in, v. Since electronic systems tend to fail in the first few hours of operation, burn in refers to running a system for a period before it is sold.

carbon, comb. form Starting at about 1990, the language sees the introduction of a number of words based on the element’s name related to the emission of greenhouse gases and climate change, including carbon cap, carbon credit, carbon footprint, and carbon offset.

deer-in-the-headlights look, n. This evocative term for a stunned facial expression makes its debut.

downer, adj. This sense of downer is used in the agricultural and meat-packing industries to refer to livestock that are too ill to stand on their own.

DWEM, n. An acronym for dead, white, European male. In the 1980s many university professors and students began to question the priority that these men were given in the study of the liberal arts, a priority that excluded women and minority voices from the canon. The acronym DWEM was one result.

e-, comb. form The prefix predates 1990 somewhat, but this is the date the OED gives it, and it is roughly the year in which the usage took off in popularity. Examples include, e-text, E-Payment, and e-flirting. But the earliest example in the dictionary is E-fit, a 1988 British term for an electronic composite-photo identification kit used by police. The fit comes from the earlier analog incarnation, photofit.

elevator surfing, n. The practice of riding on the top of elevator cars gets its name.

emoticon, n. A blend of emotion + icon, this representation of a facial expression using characters from the keyboard had been around for a few years before this name was assigned.

-erati, comb. form This suffix is used to denote a group of people, often elites, associated with the stem word. The original is, of course, the seventeenth-century literati. Glitterati and digerati are common as well. Some of the less known and nonce ones cited in the OED include chatterati, Briterati, and lounge-erati.

fat finger, adj. The expression to have fat fingers is a bit older, but this term referring to mistyping enters adjectival use about this time.

golden hour, n. This term is from emergency medicine and refers to the period shortly after a trauma when medical intervention is most effective.

gray list, n. Modeled after black list, this notional list represents discrimination against older people. It comes from the name of the 1990 documentary film Power and Fear: The Hollywood Gray List.

half-caf, n. and adj. The OED’s first citation of this name for a coffee drink made with one part caffeinated and one part decaffeinated coffee or espresso is from Steve Martin’s 1990 film L. A. Story, which contains a scene of the characters giving a waiter a series of ridiculously complicated coffee orders: “I’ll have a double de-caf cappuccino [...] I’ll have a double de-caf half-caf. With a twist of lemon.”

hentai, n. This name for pornographic cartoons, usually from Japan or in a Japanese style, is a clipping of the Japanese hentai-manga or hentai-anime. Hentai means “abnormality, transformation, metamorphosis” and is used in Japanese slang to mean “pervert.”

Iraqnophobia, n. Modeled after arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, this jocular word refers to inordinate fear and hyperbole regarding Saddam Hussein and his threat to national security.

kewl, adj. The spelling variation of cool is recorded.

LARP, n. and v. The acronym for live-action role-playing makes an appearance.

lesbigay, adj. (and n.) This blend of lesbian, bisexual, and gay refers to all three collectively.

MACHO, n.3 Another in the long line of playful astronomical terms. This one is an acronym for massive compact halo object and refers to objects like brown dwarfs and black holes that some astronomers believe exist in large numbers in a halo around galaxies.

malware, n. Another -ware term. Malware refers to the class of software written with nefarious intent that includes viruses and spyware.

microlending, n. The term for small loans used to encourage businesses and economic development in impoverished countries and regions appears. Microcredit is a bit older, appearing in 1988.

my big fat, adj. phr. The fad use of this phrase starts with the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the use of the phrase, particularly my big fat mouth, is older.

nanite, n. The science fiction term for a nano-scale robot capable of reproducing and creating other machines and structures is in place by 1990.

polyamorous, adj. The term describing people with close emotional and sexual relationships with more than one other person debuts.

shout-out, n. Public acknowledgements and credits get a colloquial name.

smack talking, n. and adj. Shout outs are in contrast to smack talking.

sound card, n. A sound card is a circuit board for a computer that allows it to process and play audio.

sports bottle, n. The plastic bottles have become ubiquitous in our culture. They’re not just for hydrating during sports and exercise.

star 69, n. and v. U. S. telephone carriers introduced this feature in 1990. Dialing asterisk-six-nine results in the phone dialing the number of the last incoming call.

-tainment, comb. form Another combining form the OED includes for 1990, even though much used forms like docutainment, edutainment, and infotainment go back a decade or more earlier.

term-limited, adj. The adjective refers to politicians who by law are ineligible for further terms in office.

World Wide Web, n. Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau gave their invention this name in 1990.

These words are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, based on that dictionary’s earliest citation for that word. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the word was coined in the given year; it only means that is the earliest date the big dictionary has for the word. In many cases, these words can and have been antedated. My selection is not scientific or systematic; it is based on what I think is interesting; sometimes they are words that appear earlier or later than I would have thought; others have a particular historical affiliation for that year or represent some historical trend; and others are just odd words. I’m avoiding back-formations and variations on existing words. Again, be warned that the coining of a word does not necessarily coincide with the invention of a concept. Often, there will be older words that express the same sense.

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