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THERE'S A WORD FOR THAT

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

New Dictionary Words Merriam Webster
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
New addition.
  • Thu-Huong Ha
By Thu-Huong Ha

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

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.”

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

Work

yearwords
1983stressed-out
1988mommy track
1989viral marketing
1997webinar
2006walk 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.”

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

Technology

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

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.

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

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

Food and sustainability

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

Misc anxiety

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

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