Saturday, July 6, 2019

Still Life with Robin: Words Flying Through Time

by Peggy Robin

The Declaration of Independence is presented to the Continental Congress
Of course by now you will have heard that bit of time-travel cited by President Trump in his Fourth of July speech: “In June of 1775, the Continental Congress created a unified army out of the Revolutionary Forces encamped around Boston and New York and named after the great George Washington, commander in chief.… Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do.”

Now that the word “airport” has been transported back to 1775, I thought we might all enjoy a bit more verbal time-travel, using the online tool created by dictionary dictators at They call it the Merriam Webster Time Traveler:

Type any year into the search box and you will bring forth all the words that appeared in print for the first time ever* in that year. You can type in 1775…but you won’t see “airport”! Amazingly, though, you will see these additions to our political, social, and cultural discourse: “nonconstitutional” (“unconstitutional” had already been around since 1734) and “self-justification,” and “unevolved.” A person could be described for the first time as a “clotheshorse” or as a “tourist”. Something that had gone out of fashion could be called “passé ”. And look at the two new foods that English speakers were able to identify and enjoy: Gazpacho and eggnog.

Since I started this little game with Trump, let’s next take a look at the words that came into print at about the same time baby Trump came on the scene – the year of his birth 1946: Your success could be described as “boffola”. If you told a story that went against the historical  truth, it was “counterfactual.” If you came from Latin America, you could now be called “Latino” and if you were rich enough, you could be called a “zillionaire.” And all of these trendy new terms were “buzzwords”.

Moving forward to the year Trump was elected, 2016, there are just five new words in the dictionary never before seen in print, and four of them were artificially produced, short-lived radioactive elements. One of these, cooked up in a lab in Moscow, is called “moscovium.”

Want to fly back to the year of your birth and see what new words came along at about the time you arrived in the world? You will probably be surprised to find words you had always assumed had been around forever are no older than you are. Jump around the centuries for a while and you’ll feel the oddest ripples left by words coming and going and shifting meaning through time. Whatever you discover, it will not be a waste of time!

[* For more on what qualifies as “first time in print” [in an English language publication, see]
Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv* and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.
[The word Listserv was invented and trademarked in 1986.]  

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