Looking Up a Dictionary
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The Biggest Buzzwords the Year You Were Born

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Looking Up a Dictionary
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Joseph Raymond McCarthy
Wikimedia Commons

1950: McCarthyism

Though Senate hearings were a few years away yet, Sen. Joseph McCarthy made news in February during a speech where he alleged communist influence in the press and federal government, including the State Department and the Army, deeply troubling some senators with "what they considered reckless accusations," according to a post on the U.S. Senate website. The term has since come to mean defamation of character or reputation through personal attacks or indiscriminate allegations.


Related: 23 Infamous 'Hot Mic' Moments

Overweight woman hand pinching excessive belly fat on white background, Healthy concept
chokja/istockphoto

1951: Flab

If there was ever a 1950s word it's "flab" — which is simply a shortening of the word "flabby."

Sonotone 77 hearing aid
Sonotone 77 hearing aid by Karitxa (CC BY-SA)

1952: Transistorized

The first product to take advantage of transistors — solid-state electronic devices — was a hearing aid by Sonotone that went on the market in 1952 for $229.50, according to PBS.org. "It used two vacuum tubes and one transistor built by a startup called Germanium Products Corp." Other versions quickly followed the conversion, becoming "transistorized."


Related: Products You Never Thought Would be Obsolete

Wet road, storm clouds. In the background you can see a UFO. A ray of light from the sky. Unidentified flying objects that take on board, scattered objects for research
Golden Family Foto/istockphoto
Elvis Statue Display in Retail Small Business Beale Street Memphis
Lorraine Boogich/istockphoto

1954: Rock and Roll

Bill Haley & His Comets were rocking around the clock as well as covering Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," and Elvis Presley was beginning to break out. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed coined the phrase "rock and roll" for the new style of music sweeping the country.


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Fallout Shelter
Amazon
The Andersons
Wikimedia Commons

1956: Sitcom

In the burgeoning medium of TV, situation comedies — "sitcoms" for short — like "Topper," "Father Knows Best," "The Life of Riley," "The Honeymooners," and "I Love Lucy" were finding a home, creating a genre that's still popular today.

Related: Most Popular TV Show the Year You Were Born

A replica of Sputnik 1
Wikimedia Commons

1957: Sputnik

The launch of Sputnik at the height of the Cold War on Oct. 4, 1957, marked the first artificial satellite in outer space and scored a significant victory for the Soviet Union while frightening the world, which largely didn't understand its capabilities.

Twenty-One Game Show
Wikimedia Commons

1958: Game Show

When disgruntled former contestants of "Twenty One" and other quiz shows came forward to say the contests were rigged by the networks to heighten the drama and keep viewers returning week after week, game shows were on the spot and in the news.

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 30: Venue for DEF CON China 1.0 is a gasometer measured at 67 m in diameter and 68 m in height, situated in the 751D Park where there used to be Soviet style factory complex
Bing Wen/istockphoto

1959: DEFCON

The Cold War contributed many words to the lexicon but maybe none more chilling than this one, a graduated measure of military defense readiness in response to a perceived threat of attack. It ranges from DEFCON 5 at the lower end of the scale to DEFCON 1, imminent war.

"Middle of the Road"
"Middle of the Road" by Magnussen, Friedrich (CC BY-SA)

1960: Discotheque

From the French word meaning "library of phonograph records," this term became associated with nightclubs that featured dancing and eventually made the jump to America, where the phrase would later be shortened to disco, referring not only to the clubs but to a genre of music.


Related: 29 Destinations That Defined the 1960s

Surf and turf: dinner of steak, lobster tail
Alina555/istockphoto
Pile of old letters with envelopes
malerapaso/istockphoto

1962: ZIP Code

Though Merriam-Webster puts its roots in 1962, the U.S. Post Office Department officially put this now universally known idea into use in 1963 as a way to help automate mail-sorting methods. It was known as the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) code and eventually became a social and economic tool for organizing demographic information.


Related: 18 Things You Didn't Know About the U.S. Postal Service

Kids Merrill FSA camp
Kids Merrill FSA camp by trialsanderrors (CC BY)
Children in Retro Aged Classroom
wwing/istockphoto
Counterculture
Counterculture by RV1864 (CC BY-NC-ND)

1965: Hippie

Merriam-Webster tracks the first use of this word — describing the counterculture group — to 1965, and History.com links its rise in attention and influence to the first official engagement of U.S. troops in Vietnam in the spring of that year. The movement would grow to include thousands of young Americans in the coming years who opposed the war and rejected mainstream culture.


Related: 18 Ways Woodstock Changed the World

Antique historical photographs from the US Navy and Army: Supreme Court Room, Washington
ilbusca/istockphoto

1966: Miranda

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona — involving the rights of Ernesto Miranda, who confessed to charges of robbery, kidnapping, and rape in 1963 — was big news in 1966 and brought about a major change in the way law enforcement officials deal with criminal suspects.

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"
eBay
Closeup Scanning Anatomy of Airborne Virus
Kittiphat Abhiratvorakul/istockphoto

1968: Coronavirus

While these types of viruses have been with us since the 1930s, the phrase was coined in 1968 when scientists using an electron microscope could see "its crown-like surface resembled the Sun's outer layer, called the corona," Forbes says.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. by Minnesota Historical Society (CC BY-SA)

1969: Martin Luther King Day

The first annual ceremony commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took place Jan. 15, 1969, in Atlanta the year after his murder. While many states began to recognize the day in the 1970s, it didn't become a national holiday until 1986.

The Stooges' 1970 album "Funhouse" with Iggy Pop
Amazon

1970: Punk Rock

This genre of raw rock 'n' roll was a few years from gaining traction, but Rolling Stone says The Stooges' 1970 album "Funhouse" with Iggy Pop on lead vocals "channeled bad-trip psychedelia and metallic R&B into hormonal meltdowns that inspired generations of pent-up noise fiends."

Ping Pong Exhibition Bejing
Wikimedia Commons

1971: Ping-Pong Diplomacy

In an attempt to improve U.S.-China relations, the American Ping-Pong team was invited to visit the country, "becoming the first group of Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949," NPR says. President Richard Nixon made a visit the following year.

Man inserting a floppy disk in an old computer
mikkelwilliam/istockphoto

1972: Floppy Disk

IBM began making the 8-inch disks housed in a durable envelope and received patents for them and their drives in 1972, opening the door to a better way to store information on computers and ending the reign of the punchcard. "I had no idea how important it would become and how widespread," the company quotes Warren L. Dalziel, the lead inventor of the floppy disk drive, on its website.


Related: The Greatest American Inventions of the Past 50 Years

Ford Sworn in as President
magnez2/istockphoto

1973: Watergate

What was once considered an annoyance to the White House became a full-blown crisis for President Richard Nixon as the Senate Watergate Committee formed to investigate the cover-up of what Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler called "a third-rate burglary" that eventually led to the Oval Office and forced Nixon's resignation the following year.


Related: Famous Crime Scenes You Can Visit Across America

Signing Ceremony for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974
The U.S. National Archives

1974: Individual Retirement Account

In an effort to protect employee pension plans, Congress enacted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which created individual retirement accounts or IRAs. At the time, says Forbes, they were restricted to workers who weren't covered by company retirement plans but were expanded in 1981 to remove that restriction.


Related: Ways to Jump-Start Your Retirement Savings

Credit Card Crunch
bernie_photo/istockphoto

1975: Debit Card

Banks began rolling out debit cards to let customers get money from their accounts via the worldwide BankAmericard network without writing a check. The initial response was less than enthusiastic, though it eventually caught on — once they were also able to be used as ATM cards.

Ebola Check Point
harry1978/istockphoto

1976: Ebola Virus

Consecutive outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever took place in parts of Central Africa in 1976, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was in a village near the Ebola River; the second was in South Sudan. Subsequent outbreaks have occurred over the years.

Lee Marvin Ignoring Michelle Triola Marvin
Bettmann/Getty Images

1977: Palimony

Celebrity divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson coined the term when his client, Michelle Triola Marvin, took actor Lee Marvin to court, seeking half of his earnings from the six years they spent together as an unmarried couple. By the time a three-month trial filled with Hollywood celebrities followed in 1979, a flood of similar cases had been filed, setting a precedent in California and other states.


Related: The Most Expensive Celebrity Divorces of All Time

CB Radio
Wikimedia Commons

1978: CB Radio

Long before there were social networks or the Information Superhighway, people flocked to this communications craze that peaked about 1978. Truck drivers had been using citizen band radio for years, developing a language all their own, but by the mid-'70s the units had become a cultural phenomenon in songs, movies, and TV shows.


Related: Everyday Things Only People Who Came of Age in the '70s Would Remember

CD-rom against a black background
Scharvik/istockphoto

1979: Compact Disc

The compact disc and its audio player were introduced by Philips at a press conference in Holland, opening the door for a new way to listen to music. The first commercial CDs followed a few years later, eventually surpassing vinyl albums in 1988.

Manager at a traffic light, 80s
atlantic-kid/istockphoto

1980: Yuppie

A term — generally used in a derogatory way — for young urban professionals, "business people who were considered arrogant, undeservedly wealthy, and obnoxious," says Investopedia.

Sony Betacam SP Camcorder.
Sony Betacam SP Camcorder. by KMJ (CC BY-SA)

1981: Camcorder

Sony's Betacam was a hit at the 1981 Consumer Electronics Show, according to CNN, combining a video camera and a video recording device in a single unit. While it was originally intended for television reporters, it wasn't long before a version was made for consumers.

HIV+ HIV- blood in a test tube
Thomas Faull/istockphoto

1982: AIDS

In September 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began using the term "AIDS" (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) to describe the alarming disease it had been following, according to History.com.

Mobile phone evolution
Wikimedia Commons

1983: Cell Phone

They cost thousands of dollars, couldn't take a picture, surf the web, or send a text, but cell phones drew a lot of attention when they arrived in 1983, giving people with means a new way to communicate on the go. They wouldn't fit in a pocket for some time.

Lee Atwater
Wikimedia Commons

1984: Spin Doctor

When President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate with Walter Mondale, adviser Lee Atwater and other "spin doctors" were there to convince the media that the president was really the winner, creating a new form of political messaging — and a catchy phrase first suggested in that morning's New York Times — in the process. Mondale's camp also had folks ready to help reporters see things their way.

VCR by Nordmende
VCR by Nordmende by Akinom (CC BY)

1985: VCR

Videocassette recorders were hot, finding their way into 14% of American households by 1985, letting viewers control what they watched on their TVs for the first time. But they were still a long way from their peak (90%) in 2005, according to the Washington Post. Try finding one now.


Related: 12 Tech Flops of the 1970s and '80s That Were Ahead of Their Time

Good Beer Guide to Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest
Good Beer Guide to Breweries and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest by Thomas Cizauskas (CC BY-NC-ND)

1986: Craft Beer

Homebrewing had been around for ages, but Forbes ties the emergence of craft beer to Vince Cottone's book "Good Beer Guide: Brewers and Pubs of the Pacific Northwest," which defined the idea of a craft brewery — now regarded as a smaller, independent brewery with production under 6 million barrels a year. The global craft beer market has grown to $95 billion in 2020.


Related: Coolest-Looking Craft Beer Cans in America

Los Angeles traffic.
peeterv/istockphoto

1987: Road Rage

Newscasters at KTLA in Los Angeles coined this term during a summer when violence enveloped Southern California freeways. "By the end of August, five people would be dead and 11 more injured," according to Timeline. "Hundreds of instances of violence were reported statewide."

Man's hand holding remote control in front of vintage old TV
Pituk Loonhong/istockphoto

1988: Channel Surfing

Cable TV was growing rapidly in the 1980s, existing in more than 50% of American homes by 1987. Which explains the first uses of this now-common phrase in 1988 as viewers went from channel to channel in an effort to find something interesting to watch.

Portrait of a 10 year old girl
Secha6271/istockphoto

1989: Air Quotes

Drawing double quote marks in the air wasn't new, but their growing popularity was said to be linked to a Spy Magazine story. "Air quotes abound nowadays," it said. "Air quotes eliminate responsibility for one's actions, one's choices."

Thin line between terror and excitement
dmathies/istockphoto

1990: Bungee Jumping

Adrenaline junkies were enjoying "the first gonzo craze of the '90s" — jumping from a platform or a bridge with an elastic cord tied to their ankles. The idea was already big in New Zealand.

Bosnian War
Bosnian War by Paalso (CC BY-SA)

1991: Ethnic Cleansing

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina brought this phrase — which Merriam-Webster says means "the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity" — into stark focus.

Mail Delivery
MichaelShivers/istockphoto

1992: Snail Mail

This term described the relative speed of traditional residential mail as opposed to the nearly instantaneous transmission of "letters" between writer and reader available through the expanding network of electronic mail, a big benefit of the growing commercialization of the internet.

90's Internet
90's Internet by John Lester (CC BY)

1993: Information Superhighway

This term for the internet was intended as a relatable image of a network very few people understood in 1993. The American Dialect Society made this phrase its word of the year.

Diversity
Wikimedia Commons

1994: Casual Day

Also known as dress-down day, this excuse to relax corporate dress codes — frequently on Fridays — quickly worked its way into popular culture as a way to help boost employee morale. After the pandemic, it may have become a way of everyday life.

IBM Aptiva
Ruben de Rijcke

1995: World Wide Web

The American Dialect Society voted this phrase — referencing the popular part of the internet reached through a graphical browser — and its variants "Most Likely to Succeed." While we don't use the entire phrase or W3 anymore, surfing the web is a daily occurrence for many people.

Soccer Mom and Brother Watching Sister Play Game
Purdue9394/istockphoto

1996: Soccer Mom

In this presidential year, both parties were trying to earn the votes of suburban women — a group they referred to demographically as soccer moms. Suddenly, "the hands that steered the mini-van were also deciding whether to turn left or right in the presidential election," said The New York Times.

DVD Player
DVD Player by Benutzer:PeKron (CC BY-SA)

1997: DVD

DVDs and their players became a hot item in the U.S. following their launch in March 1997, eventually relegating the VHS format to the trash heap of history in favor of the more-durable format with higher picture quality. The first players cost around $800 and early movie titles ran $25 each.

Confused and bewildered senior lady
mheim3011/istockphoto

1998: Senior Moment

Haven't we all said, "Why did I come in here?" at some point? Merriam-Webster says this euphemistic term for a brief memory lapse blamed on age originated in 1996, but its popularity in 1998 put it among the American Dialect Society's top words for that year.


Related: 20 Benefits of Growing Old

arrow.com
joshblake/istockphoto

1999: Dot-com

If your company wasn't on the web, sporting a ".com" in its address, you were missing out as investors flocked to the space. A speculative bubble in dot-com companies would later burst, costing investors dearly and shuttering many weaker firms.

2000 Presidential election
2000 Presidential election by Clariosophic (CC BY-SA)

2000: Chad

For a while, the 2000 presidential election was hanging by these slivers of paper as examiners spent weeks hand-counting punchcard ballots. In the process, "terms like 'hanging chads,' 'dimpled chads' and 'pregnant chads' became part of the lexicon," History.com says.


Related: The Most Shocking Election Upsets in U.S. History