25 Common Words That Didn’t Exist Until the 1980s
And you thought "foodies" and "yuppies" were 21st-century problems...
For as long as language has existed, it’s been malleable. This is especially true in today’s world, where culture is moving faster than ever and the things we take for granted today could be vastly different tomorrow. Just think about some of the words that have become ubiquitous—a word like “Google,” for instance. Do you remember a time when Google wasn’t a word? We don’t mean it wasn’t a word that we used frequently—it literally wasn’t a word that existed yet. Imagine going back to the year 1980 and telling someone to “Google it.” They’d think you were a crazy person!
Here are 25 words that you may not realize only entered our language—or, at the very least, became commonplace—less than four decades ago.
Portable computers were already on the market by 1981, but it would take a few more years before they started being widely described as “laptops.” The first official laptop was the Gavilan SC, introduced in May 1983, which came with 48 kb of ROM (a far weaker tech than the RAM you’d find in today’s machines) and cost around $4,000.
The New York Times didn’t invent the word “micro-breweries”—small-batch brewers had long been popular in the United Kingdom—but when they reported on a Northern California micro-brewery, in 1983, they were the first mainstream publication in the United States to use the term.
It was the first few lines of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” that introduced the word “hip-hop” to the masses. But it wasn’t until 1982, when Village Voice reporter Steven Hager predicted that “hip-hop could be considered the most significant artistic achievement of the decade,” that it became more than just a lyric.
Science fiction author William Gibson came up with the word “cyberspace” for his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” but it took his 1984 novel Neuromancer for it to enter the zeitgeist. As he explained in an interview, the word came from his need to create “that sense of other realm, a sense of agency within my daily life, looking for bits and pieces of reality that could be cobbled into the arena I needed.”
Before there was “snail mail,” it was just… mail. There are two possible origins for how this phrase came to be. One is that it was first uttered by Jim Rutt, once-upon-a-time CEO of Network Solutions, who reportedly predicted back in 1981 that electronic mail would make all other correspondence feel like snail mail. The other possibility is the 1981 animated special Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City, where the mail is delivered to the eponymous character by snail mail: literally a snail mail carrier.
From travel to clothing, “eco-friendly” has become one of the buzz-words of modern marketing. Prove that your services are environmentally friendly and you’ll have an instant customer base. But while Earth-friendly products have been around for years, it was a 1989 Daily Telegraph story that the term “eco-friendly” made its debut. “The only way that eco-friendly products are going to take off is for them to be presented by manufacturers and retailers as high tech and modern,” the author wrote.
There’s some disagreement about whether “glass ceiling” was originally coined by diversity advocate Marilyn Loden during a 1978 speech or by British writer Gay Bryant, who was quoted in a 1984 Adweek story saying, “Women have reached a point—I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck.” Either way, the term didn’t take off until the ’80s.
Before it became widely-known by the commercial name “Prozac,” this popular antidepressant was called simply fluoxetine. It was only after the FDA approved the drug in 1987 that Prozac was born, and it was a term cooked up by branding company Interbrand (who also did work for the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo).
“A new term has been introduced into the American political lexicon,” the New York Times announced in 1984. “It is ‘Yuppie,’ which stands for Young, urban professional people.” It’s a word that briefly went out of favor but came back in a big way in the new millennium. As a writer for the now-defunct Details remarked in 2006, “We’re all yuppies now.”
Cable and satellite TV was still in its infancy in 1986 when the Wall Street Journal came up with a fun way of describing the short attention span viewing that came with too many televised options. “Channel surfing” would soon spawn “web surfing,” and today, when most people hear the word “surfing,” they more often think of mass media then riding an ocean wave.
The first actual infomercial happened all the way back in 1949, in an extended commercial for a Vitamix blender that its inventor described as “one of the most wonderful machines that was ever invented.” But infomercials as we know them today didn’t exist until 1981, when the FCC officially lifted the ban on program-length advertisements, making late night TV safe for Ginsu steak knives, ThighMasters, and psychic hotlines.
Before Microsoft Excel was unveiled in 1982, workbooks filled with rows and columns to help calculate numerical data were not familiar to the average person. That was something left to accountants. Nowadays, even middle school kids know their way around a spreadsheet.
When Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) uttered his first “d’oh” (which was written in the script as “annoyed grunt”) in a 1988 short called “Punching Bag” on the Tracey Ullman Show, who could have predicted that it would become one of the most repeated and beloved comedic quotes of all time?
Short for “emotional hardcore,” emo was coined to describe a very specific punk scene in mid-’80s Washington, D.C. But the exact origins are “shrouded in mystery,” according to author Andy Greenwald in his 2003 book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. “It first came into common practice in 1985. If Minor Threat was hardcore, then Rites of Spring, with its altered focus, was emotional hardcore or emocore.”
It all began with New York magazine food critic Gael Greene, who gifted the world with the word “foodie” in a 1980 review of Restaurant d’Olympe. It came during an especially poetic passage, in which she described a typical diner “(slipping) into the small Art Deco dining room… to graze cheeks with her devotees, serious foodies.” It caught on in a big way, and today foodie is used to describe anyone with a burning passion for great eats.
The white-knuckled hostility between fellow motorists is now so common that it’s almost a cliche. But the phrase “road rage” harkens back to one specific incident, a confrontation between two motorists on a Los Angeles highway during the summer of 1987, in which a father of a three-year-old—the child was in the car at the time—was gunned down in cold blood for driving 65mph (the speed limit) in the passing lane. Anchors for local news station KTLA reportedly the violence as “road rage,” and a terrible legacy was born.
Prior to 1987, your age was something a little more, well, mathematically accurate. If you were 34, then you would describe your age as 34. But after the 1987 premiere of the hit ABC drama Thirtysomething, about a group of self-absorbed friends in Philadelphia (all ostensibly in their 30s), it became acceptable to be vague about your age. Describing yourself as “thirty-something” was now an adorable way to avoid the question.
Breakdancing as an art form existed long before the mainstream discovered it. But in 1982, the Daily News tried to introduce this exciting and adventurous dance movement to a wide (i.e. suburban) audience. “They are young street dudes … anywhere from 10 to 23 years old,” the writer explained. “What they are doing is a new style of dancing known as ‘breaking’ or ‘break dancing’.”
The acronym FAQ—short for “frequently asked questions”—wasn’t actually a thing until NASA researcher Eugene Miya created it for the SPACE mailing list in 1983, answering some of the most common queries by people working in the space program. “I didn’t do the very first FAQ,” Miya once remarked. “But I probably did the first one of an informational nature.” Maybe it’s just us, but that sounds like a thinly-veiled diss against all other FAQs.
Scott Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, came up with the first emoticons in 1982—a sideways smiley face with two eyes and a nose, and its companion, the frowny-face—which he explained at the time were “probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.” Nowadays, the emoticon has fully evolved into the emoji.
Howard Stern may be the world’s most famous shock jock, but AM radio disc jockey Petey Greene is the original radio shock jock. Greene’s radio show, Rapping With Petey Greene, was a huge hit in Washington, D.C., during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he’s often credited as a “shock jock pioneer,” although that term was first used to describe him in 1986, two years after his death
No, we’re not talking about the band that produced annoyingly catchy hits like “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” We mean political spin doctors, the PR specialists who make sure even bad news leads to positive press. Or, as the New York Times described it in 1984—the first known reference to Spin Doctors (which they capitalized, just like the band)—these “senior advisors to the candidates” exist solely to “impart a favorable spin to a routine release.”
The SUV, or sports utility vehicle, have become a favorite for both families and style-conscious singles. And it all started with the Jeep Cherokee, a 1984 model that one critic called “the original SUV,” which became so common in subsequent years that “you barely noticed them.”
The word techno—used to describe a genre of electronic dance music (EDM)—can either make you grimace or jump to your feet, ready to lose yourself in the music. The term originated from a scene that started in mid-1980s in Belleville, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Artists like Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May created a style of EDM that sounded (and felt) like it was from the 22nd century.
When you think of the word “shopaholic,” what’s the first image that comes to mind? Did you immediately think of the late Princess Diana? Probably not, right? We didn’t either. But she was the original target of the “shopaholic” label, dished out by a 1984 story in the Washington Post. As for what she bought? Well, just check out the 6 Things Princess Diana Always Did When Visiting New York City.
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