A Hundred Years of New Words

Over at the etymology blog Wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton has taken on an interesting word usage project. He’s going through the past century, from 1911 to the present, and putting together a list of words that first appeared in popular English-language use for each year.

In each entry, appearing roughly once a week, he’s aiming for 26 words—one for each letter of the alphabet—with some variation depending on what’s there. He explains:

My selection is not scientific or systematic; it is based on what I think is interesting; Sometimes they are words that appear earlier or later than I would have thought; others have a particular historical affiliation for that year or represent some historical trend; and others are just odd words. I’m avoiding back-formations and variations on existing words. Again, be warned that the coining of a word does not necessarily coincide with the invention of a concept. Often, there will be older words that express the same sense.

The usage dates are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary’s citations, and Wilton offers a caveat that this only represents a given word’s first appearance there. Or, as he tactfully put it, “In many cases, these words can and have been antedated.” Never fear, this won’t put off the etymology geeks who know a thing or two or three. That’s half the charm of lists like this, and to those ends each year has its own thread on the Wordorigins.org discussion forums.

It’s interesting to note that joblessness, photocopier and underinsure all date from 1911; electronically, schizophrenia and yes-man from 1912; and celeb, reflexology and superconductor from 1913. Wilton keeps his commentary to a minimum, but his observations are on the money:

I have heard it observed that unlike sciences or technology, it takes fifty years or more before cutting-edge ideas in the humanities infiltrate into the consciousness of the general public. Such is the case with postmodernism, which according to the OED, was first used in 1914.

This should be a fun series, and worth bookmarking. And if I were a social studies teacher, I’d be collecting these for handouts (with permission, of course) come fall.

(via Languagehat. Photograph of the title page from one of the original OED’s 10 volumes by Jon Lewis.)

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1 Comment to A Hundred Years of New Words

  1. Kate Maloy's Gravatar Kate Maloy
    June 16, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating, Lisa. Thanks for this! I find it funny that “photocopier” is not hyphenated, in 1911 but “yes-man” is, a year later. English is nothing if not surprising and inconsistent.

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