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Among the Old New Words

4.coverFor three-quarters of a century, the journal American Speech has watched for new words and reported them in a regular feature called “Among the New Words” (ATNW, hereafter). In a recent issue, in celebration of this 75th anniversary, the current authors (Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal, Charles Carson of Duke University Press, and Jane Solomon of Dictionary.com) looked back and selected one word from each of the years since that feature began. (The issue is Volume 91, No. 4, dated November 2016, and the article is “75 Years Among the New Words.”)

Taking advantage of time that has passed, the authors offer present-day perspectives on choices made long ago, noting developments after the words were new.

For example, for 1941, the first year of ATNW, from among more than 60 words discussed that year, the current authors selected burp. And they note that, according to Google Ngrams, around 1998 burp surpassed belch in frequency of use.

Years later, David Barnhart and I looked back to find a representative word for each year in American history for our 1997 book America in So Many Words. For 1941, noting its present-day usage, we chose multicultural. It wasn’t among the 64 ATNW that year. And since our book was published, multicultural has been antedated to 1935.

Here is a sampling of the other words chosen from the articles in American Speech, with those we chose for the same year:

1946: snafu (ATNW), iron curtain (Barnhart & Metcalf)
1951: McCarthyism (ATNW), rock and roll (B&M)
1956: biopic (ATNW), brinkmanship (B&M)
1961: sit-in (ATNW), biodegradable (B&M)
1966: pop art (ATNW), credibility gap (B&M)
1971: Nixonomics (ATNW), workaholic (B&M)
1976: bleep (ATNW), couch potato (B&M)
1981: supply-side (ATNW), wannabe (B&M)
1985: yuppie (there were no ATNW columns in 1986), rocket scientist (B&M)

In 1990 the American Dialect Society began its annual vote for Word of the Year (WOTY):

1991: mother of all … (ATNM, WOTY), about (as in “Hair is about power,” B&M)
1996: meme (ATNW), mom (WOTY, as in soccer mom) newt (B&M, referring to Congressman Newt Gingrich)
2001: civil union (ATNW), 9/11 (WOTY)
2006: podcast (ATNW), plutoed (WOTY)
2011: app (ATNW), occupy (WOTY)
2015: #blacklivesmatter (ATNW), they (WOTY, singular personal pronoun)

The selections reflect the twists and turns of American history over the past 75 years. Who knows what the next 25 will bring? Or for that matter, just the first year of the Trump presidency. Hard to believe the year is nearly half over.

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