Word A Year: 20th Century, Part I

Last week we examined a number of words from one year, 1906. This week and next we will look at one word for each year of the 20th century.

The words chosen all have their first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from the year in question. This does not mean that they were actually coined in that year, in fact most were probably not since it usually takes some time from the coining of a term and its appearance in print and there is no guarantee that the OED has even identified the earliest recorded use. But the words were reasonably new to the English language in the year in question and as such are a good guide for tripping down memory lane and recalling what things were new and important in a given year.

For most years, the OED offers several hundred words to choose from. The words here were not selected in any scientific or systematic way. They are simply words that stood out as either representative of that year or just because I found them interesting for some reason or another. Some were obvious choices. What would 1957 be without sputnik, for example. Others wouldn’t have been the choice of word of the year at the time, but their historic importance is seen today. Of all the revolutions in 1969, perhaps the longest lasting and most influential was the invention of the microprocessor. Some appear because I was surprised how late (or early) they appeared. I would have, for example, thought road-kill was around long before 1979. Others were chosen just because I like them and it’s a good excuse to include them in A Way With Words, like gobsmacked.

So, without further ado, the words of 1950-99:

1999, blog, n., a public diary on the world wide web, web log

1998, Furby, n., brand name for a furry electronic toy

1997, dot-commer, n., employee of a internet startup business

1996, Viagra, n., brand name for the drug sildenafil citrate, used to treat male impotence

1995, meatspace, n., the physical world, as opposed to cyberspace

1994, supersize, v., to increase the size of something, esp. of a fast-food order, and by outlandish proportions

1993, DVD, n., data recording format, esp. for video, from digital video disk (also digital versatile disk)

1992, e-business, n., a company that conducts business over the internet

1991, carjacking, n., the stealing of an automobile by threatening the driver with violence

1990, cringeworthy, adj., causing one to cringe, from embarrassment or disgust

1989, eco-friendly, adj., not harmful to the environment

1988, channel surfing, n., to rapidly scan through available television channels in search of something of interest, esp. with a remote control

1987, patient zero, n., an individual who carries the disease into a region or population previously free of it

1986, glasnost, n., Soviet policy of greater freedom of information and speech

1985, gobsmacked, adj., flabbergasted, astounded, left speechless

1984, home-school, v., to teach one’s children at home instead of sending them to an established school

1983, bog-standard, adj., ordinary, without modification, unexceptional, of unknown origin

1982, veejay, n., video jockey, presenter of a television program of music videos, after D.J.

1981, Walkman, n., trade name for a portable cassette player and headphones

1980, Euro, adj., pertaining to Western Europe and its culture

1979, road-kill, n., an animal killed by an automobile

1978, chopsocky, adj. & n., pertaining to a martial arts film, esp. low-budget ones

1977, Jazzercise, n., brand name for a program of physical exercises accompanied by jazz music

1976, meme, n., a cultural element that propagates throughout a population analogous to a biological trait propagated by a gene, coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene

1975, Betamax, n., a brand name for a proprietary videotape format

1974, trifecta, n., a bet where the gambler attempts to pick the win, place, and show in a horse race

1973, F-word, n., a euphemism for a particular four-letter word

1972, phreak, n. & v., to use an electronic device to dial a pay phone without paying, one who uses such a device

1971, bong, n., a water pipe used to smoke marijuana

1970, counter-culture, n., radical outlook that rejects established social values

1969, microprocessor, n., an integrated circuit that serves as the CPU of a computer

1968, 911, n., emergency telephone number in the US and Canada

1967, gofer, n., a person who runs errands, from "go for"

1966, zit, n., a pimple

1965, spaz, n., term of disparagement, denoting lack of physical coordination, foolishness, or adherence to traditional values, from spastic

1964, sitcom, n., situation comedy, a television genre

1963, inner child, n., a person’s authentic personality, as it would be if undamaged by childhood psychological traumas; the part of one’s personality that enjoys childish things

1962, bait and switch, n., unscrupulous sales technique where a low-priced or attractive product is used to attract customers who are then sold a more expensive or inferior product

1961, born-again, adj., pertaining to Christian spiritual rebirth, evangelical

1960, Velcro, n., trade name for fastener consisting of two strips of fabric, one having small loops on the surface and other tiny hooks

1959, skosh, n., a small amount, from the Japanese sukoshi, a little, somewhat

1958, film noir, n., a genre of cinema characterized by gloomy and fatalistic themes

1957, sputnik, n., an artificial satellite, esp. a Russian one, from the Russian word for satellite, literally traveling companion

1956, glitterati, n., fashionable society

1955, boogie, v., to dance

1954, prescriptivism, n., the belief that language has normative rules to which usage should conform

1953, hippie, n., a usually young member of the counter-culture, a drug user, a beatnik

1952, beat generation, n., a label for a group of writers and artists who adopted unconventional dress and manners as a means of self-expression and protest

1951, motocross, n., cross-country motorcycle racing

1950, brainwashing, n., involuntary or forced political re-education

Next week: 1900-49.

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