1991 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 87 words with first citations from 1991. In that year, riot girls and new lads occupied different ends of the gender spectrum; political commentators complained about vast right-wing conspiracies and invoked Godwin’s law; PGP could help keep your cybersex on the down-low; and the appearance of Linux and SMS hinted at a different high-tech future.

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Events of 1991:

  • January: Operation Desert Storm begins with U. S. and allied air strikes against Iraq, which retaliates with Scud missile attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia; American football player Red Grange dies.
  • February: U. S. and allied ground troops invade Kuwait and Iraq, ending the war in four days; actor Danny Thomas dies.
  • March: Rodney King is beaten by Los Angeles police officers; Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, dance instructor Arthur Murray, and U. S. Republican campaign advisor Lee Atwater die.
  • April: William Kennedy Smith is suspected in an alleged sexual assault; the Dow Jones Industrial Average closes above 3,000 for the first time; choreographer Martha Graham, writer Graham Greene, U. S. Senator and ketchup heir John Heinz, and film director David Lean die.
  • May: Writer Jerzy Kosinski dies.
  • June: A U. N. inspection team discovers evidence of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program; Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupts, killing over 800; Croatia and Slovenia declare independence from Yugoslavia; Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia; jazz musician Stan Getz dies.
  • July: The Warsaw Pact is dissolved; serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested; actor Michael Landon dies.
  • August: Tim Berniers-Lee creates the first web site, info.cern.ch; a coup attempt by Soviet hardliners against Gorbachev’s government is unsuccessful; Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan declare their independence from the Soviet Union.
  • September: Leningrad is renamed St. Petersburg; Ötzi the iceman is found in the Alps; Armenia declares its independence from the Soviet Union; film director Frank Capra, writer Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and jazz musician Miles Davis die.
  • October: Comedian Redd Foxx and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry die.
  • November: The KGB ceases operations; L. A. Laker Magic Johnson announces that he has HIV/AIDS; actors Fred MacMurray, Gene Tierney, Klaus Kinski, and singer Freddie Mercury die.
  • December: The Soviet Union is formally dissolved.

The words of 1991:

babelicious, adj. This adjective is from the Saturday Night Live skit “Wayne’s World,” or more precisely from the 1991 spin-off book, Wayne’s World Extreme Close-up.

babymoon, n. This too-cutesy term for the period after a child’s birth dates to this year. It is, of course, modeled after honeymoon.

carjacking, n. This term, along with to carjack and carjacker, was all over the news in 1991. It’s modeled after hijack.

Clintonesque, adj. He wouldn’t be elected for another year, but in November 1991 The Wall Street Journal used the word Clintonesque.

cybersex, n. Is there nothing computers can’t do?

dap, n. The “Among the New Words” column in American Speech has a citation from 1991, but the Historical Dictionary of American Slang takes the word back to 1972. In African-American slang a dap is a fist bump.

down-low, adj. and n. Another African-American slang term, down-low describes something done in secret or with a low profile. It’s often used to refer to homosexual activities, but that specific connotation appears to develop somewhat later, in the opening years of the twenty-first century.

Energizer bunny, n. The advertising icon becomes a immortalized in the lexicon as a term for an indefatigable person or thing.

ethnic cleansing, n. The civil wars in the former Yugoslavia gave us this term. It’s a calque of the Serbo-Croatian etničko čišćenje. The adjectival phrase ethnically clean, also a calque from Yugoslavia, is a decade older.

FAQ, n. Another internet, or more accurately Usenet, term. It’s an acronym for frequently asked questions.

Godwin’s Law, n. Mike Godwin formulated his famous axiom in 1991: “as a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Within a few years the original law had been reinterpreted to add that after such a comparison, intelligent discussion on the topic was impossible and the argument over.

green zone, n. Following the 2003 invasion and conquest of Iraq, the green zone was the term used for the secure area in central Baghdad from which the international authorities and government operated, but the term has a much older use. Throughout the 1990s the term green zone was used to refer to areas, especially in the former Yugoslavia and along its borders, that were patrolled by international authorities and from which belligerent forces were excluded.

hypergraphic, adj. Modeled on graphic sex or graphic violence, the term hypergraphic comes to refer to over-the-top depictions of either.

Linux, n. In 1991, Linus Torvalds kicked off his project to create an open-source operating system for personal computers. The name is a blend of his first name and Unix.

netbook, n. In 1991 a netbook was an electronic book. But in 2007 the term was adopted for small, inexpensive, minimally capable laptop computers.

new lad, n. In British parlance, a new lad is a young male who adopts, often ironically, traditional sexist and hyper-masculine attitudes about male roles in society.

PGP, n. This abbreviation stands for pretty good privacy and represents a widely used system of public-key encryption.

riot girl, n. A riot girl, or riot grrl, is a member or fan of one of the feminist, punk rock bands that were active in the 1990s, or a young woman associated with that subculture.

satphone, n. A clipping of satellite telephone.

SMS, n. The abbreviation for the type of texting service stands for short message service. Within a few years SMS was being used to refer to the messages themselves.

Tase, v. Taken from the product name, to tase someone is to stun them with a Taser device. The verb to Taser dates to 1976.

thunder thighs, n. This unflattering, but alliterative, term for large thighs dates to 1991.

tighty-whities, n. The term for men’s white, cotton, briefs gets its start in university slang.

time suck, n. A time suck is something that consumes one’s time. Wordorigins.org can be a time suck.

UNSCOM, n. A rather non-descriptive acronym for U. N. Special Commission, UNSCOM was the organization responsible for monitoring Iraq following the first Gulf War to ensure that the nation was abiding by the limitations on developing weapons of mass destruction that were placed upon it.

vast right-wing conspiracy, n. Hillary Clinton made this term famous when in 1998 she referred to her husband’s political opponents as belonging to a vast right-wing conspiracy. But the phrase crops up earlier, dating to 1991 Britain, when left-leaning groups used it to categorize the Thatcher and Major governments.

velcro jumping, n. Also known as barflying, velcro-jumping enjoyed a brief popularity as entertainment in bars and nightclubs, even being featured on Late Night with David Letterman, in which patrons would dress in a jumpsuit covered with Velcro, and, using a trampoline, hurl themselves against a padded wall with the intent of sticking to it.

wearable computer, n. The term dates to 1991, although the concept is certainly older. Various high-tech firms have tinkered with wearable computers over the years, but they’ve never achieved market success.

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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