Time Traveler: When Did New Words Appear?

Last week, Merriam-Webster launched a new tool on its website called Time Traveler that lets you explore words by year. What does the tool say about our culture?

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #583

Last week, Merriam-Webster launched a new tool on its website called Time Traveler that lets you explore words by year. In other words, you can select a year, like 1991, and see words that were first recorded in that year. For example, in 1991, the words “mixtape,” “bestie,” and “gift card” appeared in print for the first time—at least as far as the people at Merriam-Webster know. Dictionary makers often find earlier instances of words, and when they do, they update their entries, but Time Traveler is based on the currently known first dates, such as 1697 for “apple pie,” 1900 for “phony,” and 1980 for “gridlock.”

And once you start searching, it’s kind of addictive because it tells you so much about culture. 

years of words

Words from 1967

1967 was the first year you could do “aerobics,” ponder “biotech,” go to “B-school” or go on an “ego trip,” take “estrogen replacement therapy,” and live in a “fantasyland.” 

Words from 1977

In 1977, you could finally do those aerobics on an “exercise bike,” worry about “bad cholesterol” and “Ebola,” take “cisplatin,” and go on a “guilt-trip” after spending too much time at a “strip mall.”

Words from 1987

In 1987, we were wearing “acid-washed” jeans and carrying around “messenger bags.” Drugs were being used “off-label,” we’d gone from “biotech” to “bioterrorism,” and we were wearing “cross-trainers” to the gym. It was the first year we had “GIFs” (and if you try to tell me it’s pronouns JIF, I will fight you).

Words from 1997

By 1997, we were working out on “elliptical trainers,” working in “cube farms,” posting “emoji,” and writing “judgy” posts on our “Weblogs.”

Words from 2007

The examples get more sparse as you get closer to the present day, but 2007 gave us “hashtags,” “listicles” and the “sharing economy.”

Set aside at least an hour to play, and visit the Time Traveler section on the Merriam-Webster website. Right now, there’s a link to it on their homepage.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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