How do you know when a word has made it? Check the dictionary.
I fell down the rabbit hole of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Time Traveler tool this weekend. What a cool toy! You plug in a year and all the words that made their first appearance in the dictionary that year pop up.
Words like hangry, hate-watch and hot take, which, with a flick of the calendar, made it into the lexicon of American speech, elbowing out the other H’s for space. Not that they just appeared out of nowhere; making it into the dictionary is process. Some words run around the American vernacular for years – even decades – before they jump over the “first known use” hurdle and debut in writing.
Flipping through in reverse chronological order is a lot like backwards time travel. Each word – once relevant enough to appear in print – reflects the newest language of the day. But this time travel tool doesn’t only look at the past. Many of the entries point toward our present and future as well.
For example, were the first entries for mansplaining (2008) and manspreading (2014) the early rumblings of the #MeToo movement? These phenomena may not have been new, but they gained exponential strength after being assigned a word of their own; words that resonate with women everywhere.
And while they achieved their first dictionary entry a decade ago, words like truther, alt-right and anti-vaxxer presciently point toward our politically divided nation, aka the dumpster fire (2008) in which we now find ourselves.
Perhaps one day in the future historians studying the origins of screen addiction will ponder the first dictionary entries for gamification (2010) and bingeable (2013).
Some of the first entries encountered in the time traveler tool reflect new nouns, like selfie (2002), JPEG (1988), clickbait (1999) or floppy disk (1972 – look it up, kids, if you don’t know what it is). Others are new actions, like photobomb, unfollow (both 2008) or chillax (1999). And who can forget that transitive verb that made it into the dictionary in 2000 – to google?
Other entries reflect concepts that have been around for a long time. The humblebrag, for example, may have only made it into the dictionary in 2002, but it is an art form perfected by Jane Austen’s characters two centuries ago. And what about wifebeater, which debuted in the dictionary in 1994? The sad truth is, wifebeaters have been around a lot longer than humblebraggers.
And then there are those entries that reflect America’s broadening taste buds: Welcome ciabatta (1994) and serrano (1972)! Take your places beside single malt (1968) and other immigrant words.
Just for fun, I scrolled back 50 years to take a peek at the words that debuted in 1968. That is the year we got cellulite, industrial-strength, trippy, and sun protection factor (SPF). It is also the first year that noogie and safe sex appeared. A tumultuous year, by any measure.
Languages are living, breathing organisms, are they not? What’s fun about the Merriam-Webster tool is that it takes you back to the pre-written period of a word, allowing you to imagine a time when you had to find other ways to express your hangriness.
There are so many ways to fall down the time traveler rabbit hole (1938). So word geeks be warned: it is a real time-suck (1991).