The Rad New Words Added to the Dictionary in the '90s: Where Are They Now?

Will twerk and phablet go the way of e-tailing and palmtop, or endure like geek and LOL?
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Poking fun at new words added to various dictionaries is a time-honored journalistic tradition, nearly as well-loved as writing about nomenclature after the Social Security Administration's annual release of the country's most popular names.

And for good reason: Everyone uses words and everyone has a name. It doesn't get more universal than the language we share. So, today, when the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not the OED) added bitcoin and hackerspace and emoji and TL;DR, everyone had some fun arguing about whether all the additions were appropriate. On one side are the traditionalists, who would prefer English remain the same as it's always been, where "always" is defined as whenever that person was 23. On the other side are the people who are right. This is literally a never-ending debate, and yes I just used literally to mean figuratively and you still knew what I meant.

But, question! Many of the words entering our dictionaries have a distinctively technological flavor. They are things we use to describe our interactions with machines, or are used almost exclusively in mediated realms like Gchat. So, if our language is being partially forced to find new ways to say things because we can do new things with technology, and we know technology obsolesces, then are we naming actions and ideas that will only exist until the next upgrade comes out? 

Matter of fact, back in the year 2000, journalists recognized this had already become a problem. In part because of technology, "the pace of change in the language has really increased," John M. Morse, publisher of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, told the St. Louis Dispatch (paywalled). His dictionary was adding a hundred words a year back then, up from a few dozen in previous decades.  (Side quote: "Morse is wondering what term will catch on for the new decade [i.e. '00s]. He said it could be the 'two thousands,' but also said it might be something a little less formal, like the 'oh-ohs.' " The oh-ohs! Way better than the aughts.)

In any case, we went back to the trove of equally excited articles about new words being added to dictionaries in the 1990s to see how the words had aged. Better than you'd think, I'd say.

Applet: This one caught on, didn't it? But only in its abbreviated form, app.

Boot Up: In the old days, a computer booting up could take a minute or two as technical arcana flashed up your monitor. That's not how most computers work anymore, and slowly, I think we're losing this word. And in its more figurative meaning — go through the turning-on process — we have "spin up" and "start up."

Browser: This one has stuck. It certainly is more likely to mean the piece of software we use to move around the web than someone looking through a store.

Cowabunga: This word has nothing to do with technology. Still. You kind of miss it, too, right? It wasn't the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that initially popularized it, but rather surfers via the Howdy Doody Show. (How childhood dies.)

Cypherpunk: In the early days of both computing and the Internet, cryptography to keep people from spying on you was all the rage. For obvious reasons, both the term and idea of cypherpunk are coming back, I think. 

Digerati: This is another word used primarily by newspaper columnists to discuss large, vague groups of people, as far as I can tell. It is certainly still in use, though dubiously useful.

Dot-com: It's still used to refer to the go-go era before the tech bubble burst, but now the preferred name for an Internet company is clearly "startup." (Especially now that many companies are going "mobile first." Someone who works for Facebook might technically work for a dot-com, but it'd be a real stretch to say an Instagram employee does.)

Emoticon: Still doing the Lord's work of inflecting text with affect. :)

E-Tailing: If anyone tries to sell you e-tailing consulting, run! Almost no one uses this term anymore, although you do sometimes see people sometimes call Amazon an "e-tailer" instead of the preferred nomenclature "steamroller."

Flying Mouse: "A mouse that can be lifted from the desk and used in three dimensions." New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998. Huh. I think this can be classed a failure.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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