Friday, February 7, 2014


Among the scores of people about whom I’ve written magazine articles over the past couple of decades, perhaps the one person who enters my thoughts the most is Allan Metcalf. I suppose I should explain: It’s because, as a writer, I deal in words.

Metcalf is an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. He is a longtime member of the more than 120-year-old American Dialect Society, which gathers annually—a collection of lexicographers and linguists, the kind of people who spend their down time debating, say, the possessive form of y’all in the central South—to choose the new Word of the Year. The only real rule is that they must choose a newly prominent unit of expression, which includes phrases (millennium bug in 1997), prefixes (e- in 1998), abbreviations (Y2K in 1999), words (chad in 2000) and even dates (9-11 in 2001).

But Metcalf has taken the notion further. In the nearly four centuries since English speakers began living in the New World, tens of thousands of words have been added to the language. In 1997, Metcalf and New York-based dictionary-maker David Barnhart co-authored a book, America in So Many Words, in which they retroactively chose a new Word of the Year for every year since 1750 – and for selected years before that, dating as far back as 1555 (for which canoe was selected). The two men examined scholarly research from books, magazines, diaries, letters and legal documents in an effort to determine exactly when the building blocks of everyday American conversation were first forged.

In general, the emerging expressions chosen by the two men reflect the focus of American society at the time – whether it is public school (1636), plantation (1645) and pilgrim (1660) or cowboy (1779), immigrant (1789) and veteran (1798) or commuter (1865), skyscraper (1883) and credit card (1888). In fact, there are many examples of words or phrases whose time arrived as a product of contemporary circumstances. The word media, for instance, emerged in 1921, when radio extended communication possibilities and the word publication no longer sufficed. And baby-sit is a relatively recent invention (1947), likely a result of greater economic freedom and the demise of the extended family.

Often, words have simply re-emerged with various definitions over the years. The word punk, for instance, first appeared in 1618 as a kind of overcooked corn. Since then it has described a stick used for kindling fireworks, a cigarette, a small-time hoodlum and finally an alternative subculture. Or take jazz, for example. Metcalf discovered that it began not with music but with baseball. Reporting on the local semi-pro baseball team in 1913, E.T. “Scoop” Gleeson of the San Francisco Bulletin wrote that a certain player was “very much to the jazz,” later explaining that it meant pep or enthusiasm. A month later, a colleague wrote a long commentary calling it a “futurist” word of “utter usefulness and power.” Soon musicians took the word with them as they traveled to Chicago and New Orleans, and it came to designate the cities’ new style of music. Eventually, it came to represent an era—the Jazz Age.

American English is chock full of expressions coined by a single voice in the word wilderness—everything from bathtub (Mark Twain in 1869) and Bible Belt (H.L. Mencken in 1926) to rock and roll (disc jockey Alan Freedman in 1951) and couch potato (a fellow named Tom Iacino in 1976). Thomas Jefferson, who was particularly prolific in expanding the vocabulary, was the first to use the word belittle in a 1782 essay (for which he was actually belittled at the time). Might George W. Bush someday be credited with coining embetterment?

Metcalf’s recent work has focused not only on what new words emerge, but why. And what are the factors that contribute to their long-term success? Each year some new words are created deliberately (motel in 1925); others arrive somewhat spontaneously (teenager in 1938). Some are borrowed from other languages (hobo in 1847, from Spanish); others are slang version of old words (showbiz in 1945). According to Metcalf, there are thousands of new words born in the English language each day, but only a relative handful will be serious candidates for a future place in the dictionary. He believes it takes about two generations to determine whether a word is going to endure, and Metcalf is there to monitor its progress. He is to a new lexical unit what Car & Driver is to a new Lexus. He acknowledges its arrival, assesses its worth and predicts its prospects for success.

Consider the year 1915, for instance. Metcalf and Barnhart chose flapper as the Word of the Year, primarily because it was sort of the yuppie (1984) and soccer mom (1996) of its day. But also among the words that gained prominence that year were goof, teammate, cover girl, pink slip, handicapped, homeroom and runaround. Few would have guessed that flapper would be the most short-lived of the bunch.

As for a long-lived word. How about this: she. In 2000, the American Dialect Society actually chose it as the… drum roll please… Word of the Millennium. Until sometime in the twelfth century, there was no feminine pronoun in English. The word heo meant they as well as she, so singular females shared it with plurals of both genders. But then she appeared, not as a sort of offspring of the male pronoun, but as a separate entity and—Metcalf argues—a portent of the women’s movement.

Still, he has his own favorite, and it’s O.K. In fact, he wrote a whole book about it in 2010: O.K.: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. Its origins date back to 1839, when a craze for humorous abbreviations hit the newspapers of Boston (for instance, S.P. for “small potatoes”). Apparently, O.K. was a purposeful misspelling of the first letters of “all correct.” The fad faded, but this one abbreviation thrived, in large part because of President Martin Van Buren, who was called “Old Kinderhook” after his New York birthplace). Eventually, it evolved into the mainstream lexicon.

O.K. is an expression that defies classification. Is it an abbreviation? A word? An adjective? An interjection? One thing is for certain, it is ubiquitous. Says Metcalf, “George Washington did not say, ‘O.K. troops, time to attack the Hessians.’ But nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anyone who speaks any language getting by without saying it many times during the day.”

So now on to our Why Not 100 list, this one offering 81 words and phrases and their date of birth. I’ve even categorized them for you:


1. Planter (1619)
2. Boss (1635)
3. Pilgrim (1660)
4. Settler (1695)
5. Alumnus (1696)
6. Colonist (1701)
7. Logger (1732)
8. Valedictorian (1759)
9. Minuteman (1774)
10. American (1776)
11. Cowboy (1779)
12. Squatter (1788)
13. Immigrant (1789)
14. Veteran (1798)
15. Pioneer (1817)
16. Goober (1834)
17. Deadhead (1841)
18. Tenderfoot (1849)
19. Vigilante (1860)
20. Commuter (1865)
21. Maverick (1867)
22. Carpetbagger (1868)
23. Dude (1877)
24. Gangster (1896)
25. Flapper (1915)
26. Teenager (1938)
27. Swing voter (1964)
28. Workaholic (1971)
29. Couch potato (1976)
30. Geek (1978)
31. Wannabe (1981)
32. Yuppie (1984)
33. Soccer mom (1996)


34. Public school (1636)
35. Drugstore (1810)
36. Ranch (1831)
37. Cafeteria (1853)
38. Country club (1891)
39. Sweatshop (1892)
40. Barbershop (1910)
41. Motel (1925)
42. Supermarket (1933)


43. Tamale (1691)
44. Apple pie (1697)
45. Cookie (1703)
46. Ice cream (1744)
47. Cocktail (1806)
48. Potato chip (1878)
49. Graham cracker (1882)
50. Hamburger (1884)
51. Hot dog (1895)
52. Cereal (1899)
53. Jelly bean (1905)


54. Bogus (1797)
55. Rowdy (1808)
56. Ornery (1816)
57. Nifty (1866)
58. Phony (1900)
59. Highbrow (1903)
60. Macho (1927)
61. Groovy (1937)
62. Multicultural (1941)
63. Cool (1949)


64. OK (1839)
65. AWOL (1863)
66. IQ (1916)
67. GI (1917)
68. DJ (1950)
69. UFO (1953)
70. PC (1990)


71. Pull up stakes (1640)
72. Tar and feather (1769)
73. Bark up the wrong tree (1832)
74. Keep the ball rolling (1840)
75. Peter out (1854)
76. Cold feet (1894)
77. Grass roots (1901)
78. Asleep at the switch (1908)
79. Cold turkey (1922)
80. Push the envelope (1988)
81. Go postal (1994)

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