THERE'S A WORD FOR THAT

The evolution of American anxieties, in words added to the dictionary since 1980

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

The 1950s gave Americans “oral sex” and “hidden agenda”; in the 1960s they got “dirty laundry” and “ego trip.”

When the American English dictionary Merriam-Webster adds new words, it also records the year the word was first printed. A new tool from the dictionary-maker, called Time Traveler, lets you search words by the year of their first appearance in the language. By proxy, it reveals the sometimes highly specific anxieties of each historical moment.

In 1987 Americans coined “beer goggles,” a term for someone who only seems attractive because you’ve had too much to drink. In 1984 they invented “phone tag,” for when you call someone and they call you back but you keep missing each other. And in 2001, “cankles,” a word for when ankles and calves are close in size.

Time Traveler offers an unusual look at how Americans named the concerns of each new generation: The early 1980s saw the first uses of “AIDS” and “PTSD.” At the same time, Americans coined new words for a class of young urban professionals, “yuppie,” and the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, “killing field.” By the end of the decade, the US had growing concerns over “ADHD” and “physician-assisted suicide” and coined neologisms for protecting their data online—”cybersecurity”—and hovering—”helicopter”—parents.

The 1990s were marked by concepts to redefine gender expectations: “heteronormative,” “metrosexual,” “cisgender.” And as Americans grew more paranoid about GMOs and worried about their environmental impact, they added “pescatarian” and “Frankenfood.” By the mid-aughts new words crept up over the proliferation of social media, as people adjusted to publicizing their lives online: “photobomb,” “unfriend,” “humblebrag,” “tweep.”

Below see the last 40 years of American anxiety through the words invented to express them.

Health and medicine

“PTSD” and “AIDS” start the decade, and are joined by “HIV” in 1986. “ADHD” and “SSRI” come toward the end of the decade. Later “autism spectrum disorder” is printed for the first time, followed in a few years by “neurotypical.”

year words
1980 gateway drug, white coat hypertension, post-traumatic stress disorder
1982 AIDS, filovirus
1983 seasonal affective disorder, designer drug, liposuction
1984 age–related macular degeneration, vaginosis
1985 tumor suppressor gene
1986 hepatitis D, HIV
1987 attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, physician–assisted suicide, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor
1991 smart drug
1992 autism spectrum disorder
1993 dissociative identity disorder
1994 neurotypical
2002 norovirus
2010 CRISPR

Work

year words
1983 stressed-out
1988 mommy track
1989 viral marketing
1997 webinar
2006 walk back

Relationships

In the 1980s and 1990s, the US gave words to the way people assault each other: “date-rape” and “roofie,” and new words for creepers, like “sleazeball.”

year words
1981 scuzzball, sleazeball
1982 G-spot, codependent
1984 date-rape, horn dog
1985 sexual predator
1987 beer goggles
1991 heteronormative
1992 booty call
1994 roofie
2001 bromance
2003 unfriend

Technology

year words
1984 phone tag
1989 bcc, cybersecurity
1990 malware, spam
1993 cyberterrorism, digital divide
1999 clickbait
2003 binge-watch
2004 e-waste, paywall
2008 photobomb

The self

The early 1980s saw new ways to describe doing nothing: “chill out,” “veg out,” “couch potato,” and “cocooning.” Americans also coined all kinds of physical imperfections: “unibrow,” “cankle,” and “muffin top.” And they embraced “meh,” probably from Yiddish.

year words
1980 comb-over, chill out, veg out
1982 couch potato
1986 cocooning
1988 bad hair day, unibrow
1992 meh
2001 cankle
2003 muffin top, manscaping
2006 bucket list

Society

“Hate crime” is used for the first time in the mid-1980s to give a name to violence motivated by hatred toward a group, and “N-word” appears as a way to reference an increasingly unacceptable slur. We also see a short-lived phrase, “mouse potato,” a computer version of a couch potato, which never quite took off.

year words
1980 differently abled, ecofeminism, yuppie
1981 weekend warrior, wannabe
1982 teensploitation, skanky
1984 hate crime, sucky, womanism
1985 N-word
1986 crackhead
1987 thirtysomething
1988 boomerang child, declinist, emo
1989 helicopter parent, generation X, intersectionality, multiculti
1990 twentysomething
1992 man cave
1993 mouse potato, metrosexual
1994 cisgender
1997 judgy
2002 humblebrag

Food and sustainability

year words
1981 acid snow
1982 food secure
1983 cruelty-free
1986 ozone hole
1988 mad cow disease
1991 pescatarian
1992 Frankenfood
1994 supersize
1999 carbon footprint
2004 locavore

Misc anxiety

year words
1980 infotainment, killing field
1984 power walk
1987 single payer
1991 ethnic cleansing
1990 intelligent design
1992 Taliban, woo-woo
1994 spoiler alert
1995 subprime, refinance, anti-globalization
1996 bioterror
1997 Amber Alert
1999 voluntourism
2004 waterboarding, truther
2010 gamification
home our picks popular latest obsessions search