Sheeple, scuzzballs, and BFFs — See the words first used the year you were born

time traveler dictionary
screenshot Merriam-Webster
Merriam-Webster has unveiled a new addition to its site, which is sure to delight amateur etymologists everywhere — a Time Traveler dictionary that lists words that were created during a specific year.

Are you older than “air guitar”? How about “cybersex,” “junk food,” or “elevator music”? Simply plug in the year of your birth to reveal a list of words that can trace their first known use back to that date.

Etymology is an inexact science, as Merriam-Webster points out in their explanation of “First Known Use” dates. Many words were used as slang in spoken language long before they made their way to a printed publication. The dates given in the Time Traveler generally refer to the earliest written use that the editors have been able to uncover. New discoveries about the nature of language and the first use of certain words or phrases will undoubtedly lead to updates in the list.

The latest Time Traveler entries are from 2010 (Arab Spring, gamification), but these lists are sure to grow in the decades ahead. Dictionary editors add thousands of new words to their lists every year, much to the consternation of Scrabble aficionados. Not only that, but etymologists do like to have some highbrow fun from time to time, such as their veiled dig at Apple when they added “sheeple” to their dictionary in 2017.

For word nerds, the Time Traveler is an interesting look back at the development of pop culture as reflected in language throughout the decades. If you were born in 1990, you’re the same age as tighty-whiteys, spam, and velociraptor. 1980 babies can count ziplock, comb-over, and high-five among their brethren. Meanwhile older folk born in 1970 welcomed love handles, beeper, and granola to the Merriam-Webster lexicon. Users on Twitter (first known use: 14th century) are already having a lot of fun with the new tool.

So, take a trip down memory lane with the Time Traveler and find out what words were brand new back when you were a mere youngling.


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