1901 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 548 words with first citations from 1901. In that year, English-speaking scientists imported the words antibody, mitochondrion, mutant, and neoteny from German; the Gibson Girl became an icon and the form of address Ms began to be used; radio began to take off, and airgrams were cutting edge communications technology; and New York state responded to the growing motorism by requiring vehicle license plates.

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Events of 1901:

  • January: Oil is discovered in Beaumont, Texas, leading to the Texas oil boom; Queen Victoria dies after more than sixty-three years on the throne; composer Giuseppe Verdi dies.
  • February: The U. S. Steel Corporation, the world’s first $1 billion corporation, is founded by J. P. Morgan and Elbert Gray.
  • April: New York becomes the first U. S. state to require automobile license plates.
  • May: Australia convenes its first parliament.
  • June: Cuba becomes a U. S. protectorate; painter Pablo Picasso, age 19, has his first exhibition in Paris.
  • July: Baseball pitcher Cy Young wins his 300th game, he will go on to win 511 games.
  • August: Hubert Booth patents the first vacuum cleaner.
  • September: U. S. President William McKinley is assassinated and is succeeded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt; painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec dies.
  • October: President Roosevelt officially names the U. S. presidential mansion “The White House,” it had been called that informally since 1811.
  • November: Auguste Deter is examined by Dr. Alois Alzheimer and becomes the first person diagnosed with Alzeimer’s disease.
  • December: The first Nobel Prizes are awarded; Guglielmo Marconi receives the first trans-Atlantic radio signal.

The words of 1901:

aces, adj. (and int.) The slang term for “excellent, very good” is a poker metaphor.

airgram, n. In 1901, an airgram was a wireless telegram. By 1919, the word was being used to a message sent by airplane, now more commonly known as aerogram.

antibody, n. English-speaking physicians adopted the German Anti-körper in 1901.

aquifer, n. I would have guessed this one to be older, but geologists were using the term by 1901.

autoimmunity, n. Another immune system term, but this one comes from the French, where it has been used since at least 1896.

ballyhoo, n.2 (also ballyhooer, n.) This one is carnival slang for a tout’s patter. There is much speculation on where it comes from. There is an older, nautical sense of ballyhoo meaning “an old, worn-out ship,” but this sense is probably unrelated. The carnival slang word may come from the Irish English ballyhooly meaning “hell.” This word is from the Irish Baile Átha hÚlla, a village in County Cork famed for the disputatious nature of its residents. The sense of raising ballyhoo, or causing a commotion, may be the source of the word. Ballyhoo may also have been influenced by hullaballoo.

bardolatry, n. Reverence for Shakespeare got a punning name in 1901.

bollocks, v. The noun meaning “testicle” goes back to Old English, but the verb meaning “to ruin, make a mess of” dates to 1901. The interjection dates to 1940.

carbon cycle, n. Biologists were talking about the carbon cycle as early as the turn of the twentieth century.

Davis, n.2 American politician Dwight Davis had sponsored the international tennis competition starting the year before.

dognapper, n. The verb to dognap appears in 1898, and the noun for the perpetrator a few years later.

exurban, adj. and n. The noun exurb is more recent, dating to the 1950s, but the adjective exurban goes back to the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a modern construction from Latin roots meaning literally “out of the city.”

eyeball, v. A U. S. slang verb meaning “to look at.”

fly-over, n. This sense of fly-over is a railroad or road bridge that crosses over another railroad or road to avoid the traffic congestion of a level crossing.

Gibson, n.1 The Gibson Girl was the iconic American woman at the turn of the twentieth century, the creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.

hospitalize, v. Not much to say about this one, other than it was new at the turn of the twentieth century.

hydroplane, n. The original sense of hydroplane was the horizontal surface projecting from the side of a submarine that controls its vertical movement and provides stability. But by 1904, the word was also being used to denote a flat-bottomed boat designed to skim the surface of the water at high speed. The verb appears in 1909 in nautical contexts. It isn’t until the 1960s that the verb is applied to automobiles skidding on wet roads.

mitochondrion, n. (and mitochondrial, adj.) German physician Carl Benda coined the name for this organelle in 1898 from Greek roots. It took a few years for English-speaking biologists to pick up the word.

monoculture, n. and adj. At the beginning of the twenty-first century many are concerned about the predominance of corn in Western agriculture. But the word monoculture is hardly new to our era.

motorism, n. The automobile is now so deeply ingrained into the DNA of our society that it’s hard for us to imagine a time when we needed a separate word to describe the phenomenon.

Ms, n.2 The written title for a woman, a blend of Mrs. and Miss, is older than the modern feminist movement with which it is (was?) now associated. But oral use of the pronunciation / mizz / predates written use by many, many years.

mutant, n. and adj. Coined by Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries writing in German in 1901, the word mutant crossed the channel into English the same year.

naturopathy, adj. (also naturopath, n. and naturopathic, adj.) Quack medicine didn’t originate with the New Age movement.

neoteny, n. Another biological term imported from Germany, in this case from the word Neotonie.

noble gas, n. and adj. And another scientific import, this time in the field of chemistry, a calque of the German Edelgas.

offbeat, n. and adj. This word is originally a musical one, which makes sense when you think about it. The slang sense of “strange, unusual” dates to the 1920s.

pinch-hitting, n. Often the OED suffers from being a general reference. Well-researched specialty dictionaries are usually better sources for words in a particular field, because, as a rule, the OED editors can’t be expected to know the field as well as the specialists. But sometimes, the OED scoops the specialists. The 2009 Dickson Baseball Dictionary, which is the go-to reference for baseball terms, has the various variations on the term pinch hit dating from 1902. But the OED’s June 2006 update has a citation for pinch-hitting from the previous year.

pink slip, n. There are three distinct senses for pink slip. The earliest, from 1901, is a notice from an insurance company of a rate increase. The sense of notice of firing or dismissal dates to 1904. And the registration certificate for an automobile from 1938. All three senses are from the use of multi-colored paper to differentiate the various carbon copies of a document.

pizzeria, n. The OED’s 1901 citation of pizzerie is a reference to restaurants in Naples. Citations referring to pizzerias in the United States don’t appear until the 1930s.

pointillism, n. The neo-impressionist painting style had been around for decades before it acquired its name. The French pointillisme, in reference to painting, dates to 1897 and was imported into English a few years later.

reference frame, n. Albert Einstein wouldn’t publish his theory of relativity until 1905, but in 1901 British physicist Andrew Gray was writing about reference frames. The term is a neat example of how genius, like Einstein’s, does not spring from a vacuum.

role-playing, n. The 1901 sense of role-playing was “fulfilling social expectations associated with a position or situation.” It wasn’t until the 1940s that psychologists began using role-playing therapeutically, and the gaming sense arose around 1980.

short-term, adj. This one arises in the world of finance in 1901 in reference to bond maturity. Its companion long-term appears seven years later.

upstate, adv., adj., and n. Frequently used in reference to New York, upstate makes its debut at the beginning of the century.

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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