The Oxford English Dictionary has 162 words with first citations from 1979. In that year, the world of entertainment brought us CDs, fluffers, karaoke, high concept, and improv; the Twinkie defense had its day in court; antiretroviral drugs and EpiPens were new medical advances; neo-cons squared off against New Agers; and high tech brought us SQL, email, and intranets.
Events of 1979:
- January: Vietnamese troops take Phnom Penh, ousting Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government from Cambodia; Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi flees Iran; hotelier Conrad Hilton, musician Charles Mingus, and former U. S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller die.
- February: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after fifteen years of exile; Muslim extremists in Afghanistan kidnap and kill the U. S. ambassador; China invades Vietnam; Nazi physician Josef Mengele dies.
- March: The Voyager-1 spacecraft discovers Jupiter’s rings; Philips demonstrates the compact disc.
- April: Anthrax spores are released by a Soviet bio-weapons facility in Sverdlovsk, killing sixty-six; Tanzanian troops take Kampala in Uganda, ousting dictator Idi Amin; U. S. President Jimmy Carter is attacked by a rabbit while fishing in Plains, Georgia.
- May: Greenland and Micronesia become self-governing; six-year-old Etan Patz disappears in the streets of Manhattan, sparking the missing children movement; actor Mary Pickford dies.
- June: Pope John Paul II visits his native Poland, the first papal visit to a communist country; the first direct elections to the European Parliament are held; the U. S. and Soviet Union sign the SALT II nuclear arms control agreement; actor John Wayne dies.
- July: The Sony Walkman goes on sale in Japan; Skylab deorbits, crashing in western Australia; Saddam Hussein takes power in Iraq.
- August: Lord Mountbatten is assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army; fan dancer Sally Rand dies.
- September: Pioneer-11 becomes the first spacecraft to visit Saturn; the ESPN cable-TV sports channel begins broadcasting; the comic For Better or For Worse begins its run; a mysterious flash in the South Atlantic is believed to be a nuclear weapons test, possibly a joint Israeli-South African test.
- October: South Korean President Park Chung-hee is assassinated.
- November: Radical students seize the U. S. embassy in Tehran, taking ninety hostages, fifty-three of whom are American; Senator Ted Kennedy challenges incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination for president; former U. S. first lady Mamie Eisenhower, cartoonist Al Capp, and actor Merle Oberon die.
- December: A stampede in a panicked crowd at a Cincinnati, Ohio Who concert kills eleven; the World Health Organization certifies that smallpox has been eradicated; the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan; Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck and composer Richard Rodgers die.
The words of 1979:
antiretroviral, adj. and n. Scientists were talking about antiretroviral drugs back in 1979, although the word would not enter common speech until the 1990s, when such treatments for HIV/AIDS became common.
breatharian, n. and adj. Eastern mystics have been claiming for centuries that they’re able to subsist on nothing but air and sunlight, but this name for those who make such claims doesn’t arise until the late-1970s and the New Age movement. Of course, whenever such claims have been examined rigorously, it turns out the breatharians are nipping out for a bite to eat when they think no one is looking.
canola, n. This type of rapeseed oil was developed at the University of Manitoba in the 1970s. The name is an acronym for CANadian Oil Low Acid. The name canola also avoids the unpleasant, but etymologically and semantically unrelated, connotations of rape.
CD, n.2 Dutch electronics giant Philips put the Compact Disc on the market in 1979.
codependency, n. (and codependent, n.) The psychological jargon term makes its debut.
commoditize, v. This verb has two senses in business speak. The older sense, dating to 1979, means simply to offer a product or service for sale. But in the 1990s, a subtler sense developed, meaning to remove brand distinctions from a product or service and compete on price alone—a condition that is bad for the manufacturer but good for consumers. While the OED records the verb to commoditize from 1979, the adjective commoditized is recorded from 1976, and the noun commodification from 1975, and commoditization from as far back as 1949.
deal breaker, n. A term from business negotiations makes it into the dictionary.
death, adj.2 The slang sense “good, excellent” makes its appearance, although there is the older phrasal to be death on, meaning “very good at, very fond of,” and which dates to the first half of the nineteenth century.
email, n.2 Now ubiquitous, email was brand new in 1979. The verb to email dates to 1983.
EpiPen, n. The name of the life-saving device which allows self administration of epinephrine for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis is trademarked in 1979.
Eurozone, n. In 1979, Eurozone simply referred to a particular, but varying with the context, region of Europe. In the 1990s the word came to denote those countries that have adopted the Euro as their unit of currency.
fluffer, n.2 In the adult film industry, a fluffer is someone who prepares a male actor for a scene and ensures he is standing ready when the cameras start rolling. By the 1990s, fluffer had been extended metaphorically to denote a warm-up performer who prepares the audience for the main event.
freebase, n. and v. The method of preparing cocaine by heating with ether and then smoking the residue grows in popularity and gets its name.
hardscaping, n. Hardscapes are the man-made features in a landscape, paths, buildings, fountains, etc. The noun hardscape is found as early as 1972, hardscaping is in place by 1979.
high concept, adj. and n. Movies and television of the 1970s made much use of high concepts, where narrative structure and consistency are sacrificed for artistic or thematic effect.
improv, n. Another entertainment term, this one is, obviously, a clipping of improvisation.
insourcing, n. The term for obtaining goods or services from within a company, as opposed to outside suppliers, first surfaces in discussions of the 1979 U. S. government bailout of the Chrysler Corporation. The more familiar antonym outsourcing is recorded from 1981.
intranet, n. Computer networks limited to a particular institution were nothing new in 1979, but the ability for users to access such networks from anywhere via the internet was, and that gave rise to the term intranet.
karaoke, n. The Japanese form of open mike entertainment makes its debut in the English speaking world. The word is from the Japanese kara “empty” + oke “orchestra.”
neo-con, adj. and n. The clipping of neoconservative goes back to 1979. The term neoconservative dates to the nineteenth century, although of course the ideology it represented back then was somewhat different than today.
New Ager, n. The term New Age, used to denote a new era in history, goes back to the seventeenth century. But today the term is mainly used to mark the cultural offshoots of the 1960s counterculture. New Ager appears in 1979, but the term New Age itself in this particular sense is not recorded until the 1980s.
off-gas, v. (and off-gassing, n.) The noun off gas dates to the 1950s, but the verb and verbal noun referring to the emission of gas or vapor from a process or manufactured product both date to 1979.
prosumer, n.1 This word exists in two distinct senses. The one, dating to 1979, comes out of the writings of futurist Alvin Toffler and refers to a consumer who plays a role in the design and manufacture of a product or service. It’s a blend of producer and consumer. The second sense of prosumer comes along in 1987 and refers to a class of products, or the people who use them, that is mid-way between products made for the general consumption and those produced for use by professionals. This later one is a blend of professional and consumer.
rasterize, v. (and rasterization, n.) The noun raster, referring to the grid of lines on a television screen or computer monitor, goes back to the 1930s, but it was verbed in 1979 in the sense of to convert an image for display on a screen.
SQL, n. 1975 saw the development of the database language and structure called Structured English QUEry Language, or SEQUEL. In 1979, computer scientists built on this prototype and produced SQL, or Structured/Standard Query Language, which is in widespread use today.
Twinkie, n.2 In 1979 the snack cake gave its name to the Twinkie defense, when former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White used his consumption of junk food as evidence for depression which diminished his capacity for distinguishing right from wrong in the killings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk the previous year. As a result, White was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
veg, v. The clipped verb meaning to do nothing other than passive activities, like watching television dates to 1979. The full verb to vegetate dates to the eighteenth century in the sense of to lead a quiet, monotonous life.
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.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton