Choosing a word or phrase that sums up a particular year is a complicated task: some would say impossible.
What seems crucial to some will have passed others by, while the choice of a word which was prominent in an area of popular culture may seem flippant to those seeking something more momentous.
As a short-hand summary of a period in time, however, a word which came to prominence is hard to beat. It scarcely matters if that word proved ephemeral, or if it arose out of an activity of little political or sociological importance: the very fact that it became high-profile can shed as much light on the preoccupations of its time as any photograph or historical summary. Be it the garden town of 1915 or Big Brother in 1949 (of the literary rather than the TV kind, although one could make a strong argument for its inclusion as a word of the 2000s), the following choices of a single word for each year in the last century are surprising and revealing.
If the journey from permanent wave (1909) to liposuction (1983), and Charleston (1923) to Britpop (1986), seems a long one, the move from power politics (1933) to off-message (1992), and from superstar (1925) to bling (2000), seems the shortest of steps. Today’s pizzas, ganglands, and fat cats, meanwhile, made their linguistic mark long ago.
1907 cat burglar
1908 Rolls Royce
1909 permanent wave
1910 double jeopardy
1911 phone number
1913 migrant labour
1914 war zone
1915 garden town
1916 blood group
1919 peace rally
1921 potato crisps
1922 class divisions
1926 fridge: ‘refrigerator’ dates from 1824.
1928 fat cats: first used to describe political backers.
1929 fuzz: as slang for a policeman or detective. The origin, alas, is uncertain.
1932 seat belt
1933 power politics
1936 male chauvinism
1937 hobbit: the term, coined by J. R. R. Tolkien to describe the imaginary tiny people of his stories, means ‘hole-dweller’.
1940 Mae West
1941 hi-de-hi: an exclamation, used chiefly by army instructors to greet, or attract the attention of, their troops. It later became associated with greeters at holidaycamps thanks to a British sitcom of the same name.
1942 news conference
1943 passion killers: unattractive underwear which was standard issue in wartime. The modern equivalent mightbe the ‘big knickers’ much discussed in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.
1944 DNA: the American Oswald Avery proved that DNA carries genetic information and laid the path for the later description of ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ by James Watsonand Francis Crick.
1945 bebop: a development of jazz, begun in the US at the end of the Second World War, and characterized by complex harmony, dissonant chords, and a highly syncopated rhythm.
1946 garden gnome
1947 bikini: originally the name of an atoll in the Marshall Islands where an atomic bomb test was carried out in July 1946. The beach garment was so called because of itsperceived ‘explosive’ effect.
1949 Big Brother: the name of the head of state in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
1950 big bang: a great or loud explosion; specifically, the explosion of a single compact mass in which, according to one cosmological theory, the universe originated. The term was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle who challenged the belief.
1952 Generation X: a generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty; a lost generation. The term was later popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name.
1954 Palookaville: an imaginary town characterized by mediocrity, stupidity, or failure. The term ‘palooka’ denoted (as it does today) a stupid, clumsy, or uncouth person, and was popularized by the US comic-strip character Joe Palooka, a well-meaning but clumsy prizefighter.
1957 Mr Nice Guy: the OED‘s first example is a description ofthe singer Perry Como. Later, the phrase ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’ became more popular.
1958 film noir
1959 hair spray
1960 pirate radio
1962 drinks party
1963 Dalek: a type of robot which appeared in Doctor Who, the science-fiction TV series.
1964 vox pop
1965 garden centre
1966 tower block
1967 football hooligan
1970 Big Mac
1971 breakfast television
1974 shuttle diplomacy: diplomatic activity by a mediator travelling between disputing parties. The term was particularly associated with Henry Kissinger’s efforts in the Middle East. In 2003 Tony Blair talked of his own ‘mobile phone diplomacy’ in the build-up to war in Iraq.
1975 Page Three girl
1976 PIN number
1977 bottle bank
1978 satellite dish
1980 nip and tuck: minor cosmetic surgery, performed especially for tightening the skin.
1981 Stepford: the name of the fictional American suburb in Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives, in which the men have replaced their wives with robots. 1981 marks the point at which ‘Stepford’ began to mean lacking in individuality, emotion, or thought.
1985 full monty
1987 to email
1988 roller blading
1989 doughnutting: the clustering of politicians round aspeaker during a televised parliamentary debate,especially in order to give the impression that the speaker is well supported or to conceal low attendance.
1990 twocker: a car thief, especially one who steals for the purpose of joyriding. ‘Twoc’ is an acronym for ‘taken without owner’s consent’.
1991 ethnic cleansing
1995 chuddies: underpants. The word, from Hindi, was popularized by the TV comedy series Goodness Gracious Me and its catchphrase insult ‘kiss my chuddies’.
1997 WAP: abbreviation for ‘wireless application protocol’, a specification which supports the transfer of data (especially for Internet access, including text and images) to and from a hand-held wireless device such as a mobile phone.
1998 to Google
2002 metatarsal: any of five bones in the foot between the ankles and the toes. The term came into general use when the England football captain David Beckham broke one in his left foot just before the World Cup in Japan. In 2006 it was Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal fracture which dominated the headlines.
2003 to sex something up
An askoxford release!