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?

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.

Geek: Yup, nailed it. This word is everywhere, including its horrifying verb outgrowths ("I'm geeked!").

Icon: A New York Times writer provides a strange window into the world before icon meant a part of a graphical user interface. "Readers of this dictionary will find 'icon,' defined not as a religious picture but as a small symbol on a computer screen."

Infobahn: This synonym for "information superhighway" never caught on. Too German sounding for American ears, I reckon.

Infotainment: I'm pretty sure videogame developers came up with this word to sanitize their wares for parents. This word's still floating around, and I wonder if it could be profitably attached to the current generation of MOOCs.

Glocal: Global + local. Eww. This was coined in the early '90s and is enjoying an improbable resurgence to describe some types of business models.

Hunt and Peck: The slow way of typing is still recognizable as a phrase, but as more and more people type faster and use smartphones/tablets, we seem to have fewer opportunities to use it.

Karaoke: A spectacularly successful entertainment technology experience, the original noun is now a verb, too.

LOL: This rather contemporary sounding term made a dictionary way back in 1998, when I was LOLing and ROFLing in chat rooms across the Internet.

Mouse Potato: This play on "couch potato" didn't make it many places outside the Oxford Dictionary of New Words.

Nerkish: Another missed opportunity! Formed from nerd and jerkish, it describes a substantial portion of the Internet.

Netiquette: This word appears to be used by newspaper columnists and grandparents. It's fallen out of common usage.

Netizen: I guess people sometimes use the term, but the spirit that infused it, this idea that the net was a separate space, an independent country that you could have citizenship in... Well, yeah, the NSA thought that was cute, and made sure to tap the pipes on American soil.

Palmtop: Appearing in Webster's New World Dictionary, this word never caught on, though, with the rise of the old smartphone, we're all living in the age of the palmtop. (What the editors didn't see coming in 1992 was that we'd hang on to the word "phone" for devices that are used far more often to do other things!)

Pharm: This term was supposed to mean a place where genetically modified plants and animals were raised. But that would be most U.S. corn farms, for example, and you don't see the term applied.

Phone Sex: Still around, though I think it's lost its 900-number paid-for connotation. Now, the meaning seems more like "voice sexting."

Phreaking: Phreaking was hacking the telephone system, essentially, and it's a classic term that's becoming obsolete because a smaller and smaller slice of our communications run through the infrastructure phreakers investigated.

Publify: I LOVE THIS ONE. Publify was meant to mean "publish online" or in a database. I can't wait to publify this post. Please help me bring this into common usage. Tell your blogger friends.

Screensaver: Most people don't use screensavers anymore because our computers are sophisticated enough to shut off their own monitors when they're not in use. I will say that I think we collectively missed an opportunity to repurpose this word to mean terrible, ignorable television (or other content).

Spam: This is probably the one technological thing you never, ever have to worry will go away.

Voice Mail: Sadly, the word and phenomenon persist. (Though at some point, people deleted the space: voicemail.)

Y2k: Not so prevalent anymore. But you know, if the world had come to an end when '99 rolled over into '00, we'd probably be talking about it more, so it's probably best this one is long gone.

Zettabyte: Maybe some day this word will catch on. I think the editors were a bit ahead of their time in this case. The scale goes: kilo, mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta. So, we're a few years off from this becoming a household term.