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History Through Words

Rosie Right

This month, Oxford University Press is publishing another in its line of books about words: "20th Century Words, The Story of the New Words in English Over the Last Hundred Years," by John Ayto ($25). The book should attract both word and history lovers. The book is divided by decade starting with words introduced in the 1900s and continues through the 1990s.

The premise is that by studying the words that come into the language each decade one can get an interesting picture of what was happening in the world and in our culture. In the introduction, Ayto tells us that in 1900 "... there were approximately 140 million native speakers of English in the world. A century later that figure has almost tripled to nearly 400 million. Add to them about 100 million who speak English as a second language ...." And, he adds, ".... every year 900 neologisms have come into existence ...."

In the first decade of this century, the new words reflected cars, aviation, radio, film, psychology, and in the '90s, he says, we are particularly inventive in the areas of politics, media and the Internet.

Here are some of our '90s new words and an acronym, with the earliest date for which a written record of each exists in the OED files.

applet (1990) — "a small computer program."

DWEM (1990) — "an acronym formed from the initial letters of dead white European male, a contemptuous term."

genetically modified (1995) — "foodstuffs, containing or consisting of genetically altered plant or animal material."

screenager (1996) — "a teenager highly skilled at and experienced in the use of computers."

waif (1991) — "a fashionable young woman, with clothes and hair suggesting a ragged style, characterized by extreme thinness and apparent fragility."

If you buy this book, remember Oxford put it out, and there are a number of words that are more British than American. Of course, a book like this also runs the risk of being soon out of date. If we listen to each other and especially to the media, we will, almost every day, hear new ways of expressing an idea. Two recent political additions that I hope we will not continue to overuse are:

traction — used in a political sense meaning that someone's campaign for political office is becoming more successful. Rosie has already heard it more times than she would like, especially in reference to Sen. John McCain's and Bill Bradley's campaigns.

K Streetification — Cokie Roberts' term for the Beltway orientation of Al Gore's campaign, before the move to Tennessee.

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