Language is constantly evolving, even if that evolution includes words like “air guitar” and “outercourse.”
Most of the people who read this website were born in the ’80s. I know this the way most people know things these days: Just kind of making something up based on a hunch and saying it out loud over and over.
I recently happened upon a tool on Merriam-Webster’s website called Time Traveler. Now, I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with M-W, because (1) as stated multiple times in the past on this website, I think sometimes they inexplicably, intentionally use words incorrectly in their examples and (2) because, for better or worse, I’m the kind of person who can get into entirely one-sided beefs with dictionaries.
But their Time Traveler tool is the stuff of all-in redemption. It’s a unified year-by-year look at the debuts of different words in the printed media; in other words, it’s an overview of all of the words “born” in every single year.
And if you’re into words — which makes you cool — it’s a delightful walk through modern linguistic history.
I went through every year in the ’80s (to serve the audience I think I’m serving?) and plucked out my 11 favorite words from each — words that are the funniest, most significant, and/or most notable additions to the English language and our current vernacular.
Best new word: yuppie
Runners up: air guitar … chill out … comb-over… foodie … high five … hip-hop … post-traumatic stress disorder … rabbit hole … self-tanner … voice mail
Thoughts: I had to go with yuppie as the top new word of the year, because it’s almost too perfect that it debuted in the first year of the ’80s. Still, it was a tough pick over air guitar and hip-hop. There were probably 11 more words from 1980 I could’ve picked as well for this list. Even though 1980 more or less kicked off society’s downward spiral that’s culminating today, it was still one hell of a year for colloquialisms! Win some, lose some.
Best new word: spreadsheet
Runners up: Buffalo wing … camcorder … fist pump … ghetto blaster … infomercial … screen saver … sleazebag … snowboard … trash talk … weekend warrior
Thoughts: Another word that debuted in 1981? Kajagoogoo. And yet it’s nowhere to be found in the dictionary. Swing and a miss, Merriam-Webster.
Best new word: couch potato
Runners up: AIDS … barista … designated driver … e-mail … gaydar … G-spot … party animal … phone sex … text messaging … turducken
Thoughts: There were so many good ones I had to leave out things like pleather, Valley girl, water park, domain name, road warrior, face plant, in your face, break dancing and alt-rock. All great words, but do they really beat turducken in terms of significance? Anyway, I’m now pretty sure that modern culture started in 1982.
Best new word: yup
Runners up: BOGO … cell phone … information superhighway … lap dancing … liposuction … mosh … onesie … piehole … ringtone … superdelegate
Thoughts: I deeply miss people referring to the Internet as the “information superhighway.” What a great term that was. It’s so much better than the current term, “indispensible cesspool.”
Best new word: over-the-top
Runners up: bi-curious … cardio … earbud … glass ceiling … horndog … laptop … moonwalk … search engine … sriracha … wack
Thoughts: Sure, Merriam-Webster defines “over-the-top” as “extremely or excessively flamboyant or outrageous,” but a mere three years later, it would become forever associated with THE best arm wrestling movie ever made.
Best new word: boy band (NKOTB debuted in 1984, FYI.)
Runners up: 24-7 … 411 … anime … caller ID … ciabatta … crack house … elephant in the room … N-word … sexual predator … step aerobics
Thoughts: What a bummer of a year. Crack house, sexual predator, N-word AND boy bands?
Best new word: bungee jump
Runners up: arena football … chat room … craft beer … HIV … junk e-mail … outercourse … shock jock … sippy cup … slimeball … SUV
Thoughts: Four years after “e-mail” entered the lexicon it was joined by “junk e-mail.” Man, things moved slower back then. I’m pretty sure I saw the first “Pinterest is full of scammer affiliate links!” article three days after Pinterest debuted.
Best new word: techno
Runners up: acid-washed … beer goggles … BFF … emoticon … FAQ … GIF … inline skate … paintball … steampunk … virtual reality
Thoughts: I almost included “new jack,” but sadly, that term didn’t have the staying power that it really, really deserved.
Best new word: emo
Runners up: channel surfing … docuseries … e-book … f-bomb … gentleman’s club … himbo … hyperlink … mosh pit … road rage … unibrow
Thoughts: 1988 was the birthplace of a lot of the words that are still in seriously heavy rotation today. Except “himbo.” It was too funny not to include, but man, that term had no stickiness at all. Other than one Seinfeld episode six years later, did anyone ever use “himbo” again?
Best new word: gangsta rap
Runners up: air quotes … BCC … beatdown … Generation X … helicopter parent … latte … queso … right click … scrunchie … viral marketing
Thoughts: So many things from 1989’s list I’ve enjoyed: gangsta rap, using air quotes, BCCing people, lattes, queso, right clicking, and, now, helicopter parenting. Viral marketing, on the other hand, can really go the way of scrunchies as far as I’m concerned.
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