The Oxford English Dictionary has 165 words with first citations from 1981. In that year, computing gave us multicast, auto-correct, and undelete; def B-boys were dancing on street corners; one could home school one’s child in the hope, or fear, that he might become a poindexter; and if things got too much for you, you could just take a chill pill.
Events of 1981:
- January: Civil war breaks out in El Salvador; Iran releases the remaining fifty-two American hostages; the first DeLorean car rolls of the assembly line; chemist Harold Urey dies.
- February: Rupert Murdoch purchases The Times; musician Bill Haley dies.
- March: Imprisoned Provisional I. R. A. member Bobby Sands begins a hunger strike; U. S. President Ronald Reagan is shot in an assassination attempt.
- April: The space shuttle Columbia on mission STS-1 flies in space for the first time; U. S. General Omar Bradley and boxer Joe Louis die.
- May: Pope John Paul II is shot in an assassination attempt; Francois Mitterrand is elected president of France; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is found guilty; Bobby Sands and musician Bob Marley die.
- June: The U. S. Centers for Disease Control report that five gay men in Los Angeles have contracted a rare form of pneumonia seen only in patients with weakened immune systems; the Israeli Air Force bombs and destroys Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor; Major League Baseball goes on strike.
- July: President Reagan nominates the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the U. S. Supreme Court; Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer are wed; musician Harry Chapin dies.
- August: MTV or Music Television begins broadcasting; two Libyan fighter jets attempt to shoot down two U. S. fighters in the Gulf of Sidra, resulting in they themselves being destroyed; Major League Baseball resumes play; screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky dies.
- September: France abolishes capital punishment; Simon and Garfunkel perform a free concert in New York City’s Central Park; Nazi Albert Speer dies.
- October: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak; Israeli general and politician Moshe Dayan dies.
- November: The Church of England votes to admit women to holy orders; Luke and Laura marry on ABC-TV’s soap opera General Hospital; IBM introduces the IBM PC; President Reagan authorizes the CIA to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua; the United States and the Soviet Union begin negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear missile reductions in Europe; historian Will Durant and actors William Holden and Natalie Wood die.
- December: Muhammad Ali fights his final bout; Poland declares martial law; musician Hoagy Carmichael dies.
The words of 1981:
ableism, n. (also ableist, n.) The political correctness movement was fueled by objections to terms like this.
auto-correct, n. The software feature that generally aids in editing, but that sometimes makes hilarious errors, is introduced.
base jump, n. (also base jumper and base-jumping, n.) The name of the dangerous sport of parachuting from structures and cliffs was originally an acronym for building, antenna-tower, span, earth.
B-boy, n. The origin of this one is uncertain. B-boy originally referred to a male break dancer, and the B may refer to break. The term break dancing isn’t recorded until 1982, but could have been in oral use earlier. In later use the term is applied to male youths involved in hip-hop culture.
carb, n.2 The clipping of carbohydrate is recorded.
chill pill, n. The rhyming term for a notional sedative appears.
contra, n.2 From the Spanish contrarrevolucionario, the contras were a militant, right-wing resistance group opposed to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
def, adj. Probably an alteration of the 1979 adjective death, meaning “excellent, outstanding,” this African-American slang term is recorded in 1981.
dongle, n. The dongle was a technically successful method for preventing software piracy that never achieved widespread market success. A dongle is a physical device that plugs into a computer, allowing a piece of software to be used.
home school, v. (also home-schooler, n.) The term home school goes back to the eighteenth century, but the modern notion of teaching one’s children at home instead of in the public schools, often but not necessarily for religious reasons, can be dated by the appearance of the verb form. The noun home-schooler was applied to parents who taught their children at home by 1979, and to the children themselves by 1981.
hoser, n. This Canadian slang term or a “stupid person, idiot,” was popularized by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas playing the characters of Doug and Bob McKenzie in their Second City Television skit, The Great White North.
LAN, n. The term local area network dates to 1977 and its acronym to 1981.
La Niña, n. El Niño made its way into English meteorological lingo at the end of the nineteenth century, but it took another century for its feminine counterpart to do so.
multicast, adj. and n. Long before most of the public had ever heard of the internet, it was a source for neologisms.
Pac-Man, n. The video game hit the market in October 1980, and within a few months the name had become ubiquitous.
poindexter, n. U. S. university slang adopted the name poindexter as a term for “a diligent student, a nerd.” The slang term is apparently taken from name of the scientist character in the animated series Felix the Cat.
rug muncher, n. This derogatory term for a lesbian appears in the pages of National Lampoon in 1981.
START, n.4 Although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan scuttled the SALT II treaty, the new Reagan administration did not abandon arms control altogether, proposing a new round of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START, in June 1981. The START I treaty would be signed in December 1987.
Stepford, adj. The 1972 novel and 1975 film The Stepford Wives gave rise to this adjective meaning “robotic, docile.”
stonewash, v. (also stonewash, n. and stonewashed, adj.) Faded denim had been fashionable for a while, but in 1981 you could buy your jeans already worn.
stripagram, n. Even though telegrams had largely disappeared from the American scene by 1981, they still remained a productive source of cultural and lexical innovation.
trash talk, n. The term for deliberately insulting language appears, although trash-talking is cited back as far as 1974.
undelete, v. Another computing essential.
uninstall, v. And yet another.
unsubscribe, v. And a third to complete the uncomputer trifecta.
wannabe, n. and adj. The synonym would-be dates to the seventeenth century, but this U. S. slang version makes its appearance in 1981.
wimp, v. The noun dates to 1920, but by 1981 one could wimp out.
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 1997-2015, by David Wilton