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New words that were born in the '80s

Written by:
August 5, 2019
Updated on August 6, 2019

New words that were born in the '80s

Each year, thousands of new words enter our mainstream vernacular—but only a lucky few are added to the dictionary each year. In order to be appended to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, words are judged by their usage rates, with only the most-used and most-cited terms making the cut.

New dictionary additions often give insight into American culture. For example, words like "Instagramming," "airplane mode," and "biohacking" indicate the importance of technology in society while abbreviated terms like "guac" and "adorbs" showcase shortened terms permeating colloquial speech.

To see which words helped to define decades past, Stacker compiled a list of 50 new words born in the 1980s. To do this, Stacker used Merriam-Webster's Time Traveler feature to find five new words first written or published for each year from 1980 to 1989. The list is ranked chronologically by Merriam-Webster's first known use date and then by alphanumeric order.

It's important to note that words on this list were written or printed in English for the first time in the 1980s. However, these words could have been used for decades before being documented for the first time. For example, "Benedict" has been used for centuries as a forename as and a term to describe newly married men, but its first known use date to describe eggs occurred in 1984. Merriam-Webster's first known use date is subject to change.

While some words appeared in print in the 1980s, some weren't officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary until decades later. Case in point: FLOTUS is thought to have originated as a nickname for former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, yet the acronym wasn't inducted into the dictionary until 2014.

From ubiquitous terms like SUV and 401(k) to lesser-known words like topoisomerase and planogram, here are 50 words born in the 1980s.

You may also like: What "cool beans" and 50 other old-timey slang words mean

1980: 401(k)

Now synonymous with American retirement savings, the 401(k) was invented almost by accident. Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1978; two years later, Ted Benna found a way to create an employee retirement account using section 401(k) of the law.

1980: Voice mail

A man named Gordon Matthews invented the first voice mail system in 1979 and so formed the company VMX (voice message express). By 1980 the phrase had made its way into the English language, even though the technology was still new and cost-prohibitive for many companies. Today, voice mail comes standard with any cell phone plan.

1980: Comb-over

The comb-over is a hairstyle in which men comb their hair from one side of their head to the other, covering their bald spots. During the 1980s many leaders including Neil Kinnock and Leon Brittan sported the look, but since then, the comb-over has declined in popularity.

1980: Topoisomerase

Topoisomerase is defined as a type of enzyme that stops or reduces supercoiling in DNA. This is done by the enzyme breaking down and rebuilding strands of DNA molecules. James C. Wang discovered the first topoisomerase in E. coli topoisomerase I.

1980: Yuppie

Yuppie is a slang term referring to young, educated adults with well-paying jobs. The word is thought to be a combination of the words young, urban, and professional. Dan Rottenberg coined the term in an article for Chicago magazine when describing a new demographic moving into the city.

1981: Acid snow

Acid snow is a type of snow that has acidic properties due to environmental pollutants. A 1981 New York Times article chronicled acid snow and its effects on wildlife in the Adirondack Mountains.

1981: Gateway drug

A gateway drug is a drug thought to lead people to abuse harder, more serious drugs. While the gateway theory was seen as viable in the 1980s, it has since inspired controversy, as critics say people may be less likely to try hard drugs after using marijuana.

1981: Golden parachute

According to Merriam-Webster, the term golden parachute was coined by an employee describing the large severance packages given to executives after they were let go during a corporate merger. In recent years, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes received a golden parachute worth $40 million, and Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines, was given close to $37 million after both being forced to leave their positions at their respective companies.

1981: Sleazeball

Sleazeball is one of the first slang terms to make the list. The word is used to describe a dishonest person. Other slang terms with the suffix "-ball" conceived in the 1980s and 1990s include goofball, oddball, and dirtball.

1981: Spreadsheet

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented VisiCalc, the world's first electronic spreadsheet, on the Apple II while in school. Spreadsheets today are an integral part of accounting, data analysis, and more.

1982: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome

On Sept. 24, 1982, the CDC named and defined acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS, for the first time. The disease was defined as "moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known cause for diminished resistance to that disease."

1982: Barista

Barista is an Italian word for an individual who works behind a bar. The term was adopted by English speakers and is now used to describe someone who makes coffee or espresso drinks.

1982: Complementary medicine

Complementary medicine includes alternative treatments like homeopathy and chiropractic medicine used by mainstream doctors. Although the term was first used in the 1980s, complementary medicinal practices like acupuncture have been conducted since ancient times.

1982: Rust belt

The Rust Belt refers to a certain region in the United States spanning from New York to Michigan and Illinois. These states were known for industrial manufacturing from the 1800s to early 1900s. After globalization and industrialization moved cheaper manufacturing overseas, the region became known for deteriorating, abandoned factories.

1982: Valley girl

The term Valley girl began in the 1980s to denote girls from California's San Fernando Valley, but it later morphed into a stereotype used to describe people who speak or act like those girls. Some believe the "Valley Girl Speak" was popularized in the 1982 song "Valley Girl."

1983: Body mass index

A Belgian mathematician named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet first conceptualized the equation for body mass index in the 1800s. It wasn't until the 1980s that BMI became the standard for measuring obesity. Today, many doctors believe BMI is flawed and oversimplified.

1983: Cell phone

The first mobile, hand-held phone was created in 1973, but commercial cell phone use didn't become available to Americans until 1983. That year, Motorola released the DynaTAC, which weighed one pound and cost $3,500.

1983: FLOTUS

FLOTUS stands for First Lady of the United States. POTUS, the acronym for the president, first appeared in 1895 as a shortcut for telegraph operators. FLOTUS came nearly a century later and is thought to have originated as a code name for Nancy Reagan.

1983: Nuclear winter

In the 1980s, researchers set out to determine the environmental effects of nuclear war. In 1983, the TTAPS study coined the term nuclear winter to describe the extreme cold, high radiation levels, and devastating effects a nuclear war could theoretically cause.

1983: Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is defined as a disease often associated with shorter daylight hours during fall and winter months. The term first appeared in print in 1983 and has since been recognized as a type of medical depression.

1984: Benedict

Benedict has been used as a name and as a term to describe newly married men for centuries, but the use of Benedict to describe eggs first appeared in the mid-1980s. While the inventor of the dish is contested, eggs Benedict has become a staple of American brunch.

1984: Clot-buster

Streptokinase was first used to break down blood clots in the 1930s, but it wasn't until half a century later when it was approved to treat heart attacks and earned the nickname clot-buster. Today, clot-busters are used to halt the damaging effects of heart attacks and strokes.

1984: DNA fingerprinting

In September 1984, Alec Jeffreys accidentally stumbled on DNA fingerprinting while studying how illnesses transfer through families. Since his discovery, DNA fingerprinting has revolutionized crime scene investigations.

1984: Power walk

Power walking involves walking at a fast pace, often while holding weights. Power walking is a free, efficient way to exercise and stay in shape.

1984: Sriracha

The name sriracha is derived from Si Racha, a Thai province where the sauce is thought to have originated. Today, people add sriracha to any dish, and many cookbooks are dedicated to the hot sauce.

1985: C++

C++ is one of the most popular coding languages in the world. C, the predecessor to C++, was invented at Bell Labs in the 1970s. Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of C++, later iterated on the language and released the first C++ programming guide in 1985.

1985: Cosmeceutical

Cosmeceutical is a combination of the words cosmetic and pharmaceutical. The Food and Drug Administration does not recognize cosmeceutical as a legal term, but that doesn't stop cosmetic companies from using the word to refer to beauty products with medicinal benefits.

1985: Elephant in the room

The origin of the idiom "elephant in the room" is debated, but the phrase is now deeply ingrained in American vernacular. The phrase now describes major problems people are unwilling to address.

1985: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a severe health condition that can cause depression and anxiety before a woman's menstrual cycle. The first known use of the term occurred in 1985, however, researchers still don't know what causes PMDD.

1985: Tankini

Tankinis are a style of two-piece swimsuits with bikini bottoms and a tank top. According to Merriam-Webster, the tankini first hit American beaches in 1985, and consumers combined the words tank and bikini to create the new moniker.

1986: Bungee jump

Bungee jumping has its roots in the Southern Pacific, where men would jump off wooden towers with vines tied around their ankles. In 1986, the sport gained new popularity when AJ Hackett bungee jumped off the Greenhithe Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand.

1986: Crackhead

Crackhead is a slang term used to describe someone who habitually uses crack cocaine. The term was first used during the 1980s, the same time when crack cocaine usage in the United States skyrocketed due to its affordability and availability.

1986: Cringey

The slang term cringey combines the verb cringe with the common suffix -y. The word denotes something that causes someone to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

1986: Planogram

A planogram is a strategic layout used in space management to help increase and maximize store sales. Since the word's first use in the 1980s, planograms have evolved from paper drawings to 3D virtual store renderings.

1986: SUV

SUVs are large vehicles built on a truck chassis. Although "sport-utility vehicle" was coined in 1969 and the acronym was first used in 1986, the first SUVs date back to the 1940s.

1987: Beer goggles

The January 1987 edition of Playboy is the first known use of the words "beer goggles" in print. Beer goggles describe the effects of alcohol on one's perceptions, making the object of a drunk person's attention appear more attractive.

1987: Emoticon

Emoticon is a combination of the words emotion and icon. Although the exact term wasn't used in print until 1987, Carnegie Mellon Professor Dr. Scott Fahlman is credited with developing the first emoticons. Since their inception, an estimated 6 billion emoticons are sent each day.

1987: Off-label

Off-label drugs are used to treat conditions even though they have not been officially approved. Off-label use can occur when an approved drug is used for an unapproved reason or is used on an unapproved condition, according to the FDA. Drugs approved for hypertension in adults have been used since 1987 as off-label drugs for youth with ADHD.

1987: Shy bladder

Shy bladder is a colloquial term describing a type of social anxiety that makes urinating in public places difficult. Other names for this condition include paruresis and bashful bladder syndrome.

1987: Techno

Techno music evolved in Detroit in the mid-to-late 1980s. The electronic dance music made with synthesizers and fast rhythms became popular across the globe, with the U.S. beats becoming a mainstay in European raves.

1988: Boomerang children

Boomerang children is a term used to describe young adults who move back home with their family. Kids boomerang after leaving for college, often returning home due to financial reasons.

1988: Emo

Emo music is a fusion of rock and punk rock genres known for its emotional lyrics; emo is short for emotional. The emo movement has its origins in the 1980s, and some followers call the Rites of Spring the fathers of emo music.

1988: Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper Belt, a region of celestial bodies in the solar system orbiting Neptune, is named after Dutch-born astronomer Gerald A. Kuiper. Researchers discovered the first Kuiper Belt object in 1930—it took another 62 years to discover the next object.

1988: Microloan

A microloan is a small loan given to impoverished people or groups of people to fund entrepreneurial projects. Mohammed Yunus is credited with inventing microlending in 1976 when he gave a Bangladeshi woman a small loan to grow her bamboo weaving business.

1988: Road rage

Once called "highway hostility," road rage is anger caused by the actions of other motorists. In the summer of 1987 five people were killed and 1 injured in road rage-related incidents in Los Angeles.

1989: Air quotes

Spy magazine is credited with using the term air quotes in print for the first time in 1989. In one article it read, "air quotes eliminate responsibility for one's actions." The gesture was used long before this first reference though, as Science Magazine is thought to be the first American publication air quotes were mentioned—though not by name—in 1927.

1989: Generation X

People born in the 1960s and 1970s belong to Generation X, the generation after the baby boomers and before the millennials. Gen Xers were thought to be more realistic than the generation before them, but were also stereotyped as slackers.

1989: Hypertext markup language

HTML, or hypertext markup language, was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1980s and 1990s. While working at CERN in 1989, Berners-Lee sent a memo advocating for the use of a "hypertext system."

1989: Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black feminist author and scholar, coined the word intersectionality in 1989 to describe the intersection of different types of discrimination including race, class, and gender discrimination. Since its inception, intersectionality has been applied to black, LGBTQ+, and women's studies.

1989: Scrunchie

Nightclub singer Rommy Revson invented the scrunchie in the 1980s after she was tired of damaging her hair with plastic and metal hair ties. She patented the product in 1987 as "Scunci" before the name was changed to scrunchie.

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