Popular slang words from the year you were born
Popular slang words by year
For the past few years, newspapers have been warning that the death of the English language is lurking around the corner. In the early 2000s, parents and educators worried that abbreviations like “brb,” “lol,” and spelling “you” as “u” would harm youth spelling and writing abilities in the future. Others have bemoaned dictionaries’ additions of colloquial definitions to their pages, illustrated in the backlash to the Oxford English Dictionary’s expansion of the definition of “literally” to include “a term of emphasis to something that isn’t true.”
Though it might seem like English is slipping out of our control, it’s actually completely natural. Language shifts over the centuries; after all, we speak the same kind of English Shakespeare did, but reading his works can make some students feel like they’re trying to comprehend a foreign language. The development of slang is a key factor that took us from the Bard’s English to today's. This informal vocabulary recycles words or creates new ones from existing parts and gives them new meanings, revealing something about the culture or group that uses them (usually young people). It can prove someone belongs to a group, enable conversations about taboo subjects, or make talking to friends quicker and easier.
Using Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler, which records when certain words were first used in print, and corroboration with outside sources, Stacker compiled a list of slang words and definitions coined or popularized every year from 1920 to 2019. The result is a powerful picture of American history in the last century, and how English has changed with it.
Click through to find out what slang was popular the year you were born and see if you recognize any of these words from your high school days.
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Meaning: mildly to incredibly satisfactory
“Copacetic” is often considered to originate from the African American community in the U.S., popularized by famous tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Others claim it instead has roots in Yiddish, French, Latin, and Italian phrases. Its origin is ultimately unknown, having been traced back only as far as a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln, but it has managed to endure to the modern day.
1921: Bee’s knees
Meaning: a highly admired, excellent person or thing
Calling someone “the bee’s knees” might seem like nonsense, but that’s the point. “Bee’s knees” is just one of many 1920s nonsense catchphrases. Others included “elephant’s adenoids,” “caterpillar's kimono,” “tiger’s spots,” and “the cat’s pajamas.” The only thing these strange sayings had in common was the comparison between a good thing and a part of an animal that didn’t exist.
[Pictured: Babe Ruth]
1922: Know your onions
Meaning: to have experience or be knowledgeable about something
Many believe that this phrase is meant to refer to English lexicographer C.T. Onions, who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it is uniquely American, first appearing in Harper’s Bazaar in 1922, and likely has nothing to do with Onions at all. Instead, it falls in a similar category as “bee’s knees:” one of a number of popular nonsense phrases that all involved food and having knowledge about a subject.
[Pictured: Suzanne Lenglen of France (right) and Molla Mallory of the USA standing on the court before their women's singles final match at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships, 1922]
Meaning: a young woman in the 1920s who showed freedom from conventions and societal norms
The iconic image from 1920s America, “flappers” conjure an image of women in makeup and bobbed hair driving automobiles or dancing in a speakeasy. While this might be the most striking image of the American "Roaring ‘20s," the slang is actually imported from the British. There, young women briefly wore rubber galoshes left open to flap around, which let to the coinage of the term.
1925: Concrete jungle
Meaning: an urban area with many large buildings and often considered wild, competitive, or dangerous
The rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century fueled the move of Americans from rural towns to cities, searching for work in new and growing industries. As the new urbanites acclimated to life in the city and an often dangerous work environment, the cities may very well have seemed like a dangerous wilderness to be navigated.
1926: Giggle water
Meaning: an alcoholic beverage
The Prohibition era brought America some of the most clever ways to make, sell, and obtain alcohol, including marketing it as medicine or pretending to be a religious leader to take advantage of loopholes. It also marked the invention of some of the most fun slang for alcohol, including “giggle water,” which likely got its name from the laughter that occurs when some people drink.
First recorded in Edmund Wilson’s "Lexicon of Prohibition," “zozzled” was one of many words used during Prohibition to describe the effect of now-illegal drinking. “Zozzle” most likely comes from the word the word “sozzle,” another word for drunk that also means to splash something on someone, something a drunk person may be more likely to do.
Meaning: nonsense, balderdash
“Horsefeathers” is an exclamation perfect for interrupting someone you disagree with. “Applesauce,” another word from the same time, could serve a similar purpose. Rumored to be having been coined by cartoonist Billy De Beck, some think it’s meant to serve as a replacement for a more vulgar term, but that definition only goes back to the 1940s.
Much like “horsefeathers” before it, “nerts” was something you shouted when something just wasn’t going right. It was used in place of “nuts,” presumably to avoid shocking or offending anyone nearby.
Meaning: a town of temporary dwellings, especially those found during the Great Depression
After the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. economy was in shambles and the following years saw millions losing their jobs and homes. This led to the development of shantytowns across the country. They were soon nicknamed "Hoovervilles" after then-President Herbert Hoover, as he and the Republican Party were blamed by some for the country's misfortune.
Meaning: an attractive woman; darling, sweetheart
One of many words referring to women that have sprung up over the years, “doll” has remained in our cultural vocabulary partly thanks to the Tony award-winning Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” which hit the stage in 1950. The musical is based on the stories of Damon Runyon, who was known for using regional slang in his writing. It was later adapted into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.
Meaning: a lazy, shiftless person; idler
As the Depression pressed on, unemployment reached unprecedented levels, eventually peaking with nearly a quarter of the population out of work. With more people at home, words like this came into use as Americans waited for the economy to recover.
Have you ever wondered why New York City is sometimes called “The Big Apple?” In the 1930s, “apple” referred to any big city. The construction of the Empire State Building at the beginning of the decade, the tallest building in the world at the time, helped New York stand out as the biggest of all.
1934: Belch water
Meaning: seltzer water
Soda fountains may be a thing of the past, but during the Depression, they created a unique culture and language. “Belch water” is one example of this “soda jerk” slang, studied and recorded by Harold W. Bentley between 1934 and 1935.
Meaning: highly excited, distracted, or worried state of mind
President Franklin Roosevelt spent most of his presidency trying to help the U.S. economy recover. In 1935, he passed his Second New Deal, more aggressive than his previous attempts. This included the Social Security Act, and the debate over it still throws American politics into a tizzy today.
[Pictured: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressing a joint session of Congress.]
1936: The big house
The age of the gangster in the 1920s and 1930s may explain why so much of the slang from the ‘30s refers to prison, and some of these words are still used today. The big house is one of those that endured. It was also the title of a 1930 movie about a prison escape, considered by many to have defined the genre of prison dramas.
Even as the economy began to recover from the Depression, American families were suffering. Upper-middle-class professionals saw their income drop by up to 40%, and everyone was forced to make lifestyle changes to get by. While it’s often claimed that “dirt-poor” originated in 1500s England, this is actually an Americanism coined during one of the poorest times in U.S. history.
Meaning: strikingly impressive, effective, successful
This word doesn’t come from the socks on your foot, but rather a "sock" to the face. It was used to describe something so impressive that it hits you in the face, like a movie with a socko actor.
[Pictured: Katharine Hepburn appears with actor Cary Grant in the film "Bringing Up Baby," 1938.]
Don Ameche was an American radio personality and actor, who worked in entertainment for nearly half a century. After starring as the title character in “The Amazing Discovery of Alexander Graham Bell,” his name become synonymous with Bell’s invention.
Meaning: energy; determination; courage; know-how
Moxie was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in the United States, created in the late 1880s as a patent medicine that didn’t contain ingredients like cocaine. It was advertised as something that would build up your nerve, and the drink was marketed throughout the war years of the 1940s as something patriotic that would fortify people against the enemy. Even as the brand lost its popularity, the word stuck around.
1941: Hi sugar, are you rationed?
Meaning: Are you seeing someone?
The U.S. entered WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and by the middle of the next year, the Food Rationing Program was underway. Everyone was limited in purchasing staples like sugar, food, gas, and clothing. The universal limitations may have helped this slang phrase become popular, as rationing hit everyone, wealthy and poor.
1942: Cut a rug
Meaning: to dance, especially to the jitterbug
Jitterbug dancing took the U.S. by storm through the '30s and '40s, and spread to the rest of the world with American soldiers after the U.S.' entry into WWII. It was a lively and exuberant dance, and when many couples danced at the same time, it could make the carpet look like it had been damaged.
1943: Eager beaver
Meaning: an enthusiastic person who performs their duties and volunteers for more
Eager beaver most likely stems from the animal's industrious nature, building dams and houses for shelter. It was widely used in the U.S. armed forces during WWII, most notably by the Air Force, to describe someone eager to impress their superiors and take on undesirable tasks.
Meaning: old-fashioned, boring
The African American jazz community, vibrant since the 1920s, continued to produce new sounds and words. Calling those who didn’t understand this new music “square” is said to come from the conducting patterns of a standard four-beat rhythm. It later shed its strictly musical connotation and could be applied to any boring person.
1945: Cool cat
Meaning: an interesting or fashionable person
Another product of jazz slang, the concept of a “cool cat” combined two concepts from African American slang. “Cool,” a term with a complicated history, had been recorded in the community as early as the 19th century. The term “cat” had also been used to refer to a man, but by 1930, referred specifically to jazz devotees before combining in the ‘40s to create the slang term we know today.
[Pictured: Thelonious Monk]
Meaning: completely messed up, destroyed, ruined
“Fubar” is an acronym thought to have been used by the military in WWII. It gained popularity in the years after the war and is now often used in computer programming and software development. Because the original acronym contained an expletive, some have shifted the meaning behind the letters to “fouled beyond all recognition.”
[Pictured: An atom bomb being exploded under water at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, 1946.]
1947: Party pooper
Meaning: someone who refuses to join in during a fun event
A creation of college students, the origins of “party pooper” are unclear. While it could have something to do with the bathroom, “to poop” also can mean “to tire or exhaust.” The verb “to pooh-pooh,” which is a way to disagree with something, might also be connected to the “party pooper.” No matter where it comes from, it’s not a trait most people want to have.
Meaning: someone who is strange, weird, or eccentric
First used as an adjective in aviation circles, “oddball” came to describe a person who doesn’t quite fit, a meaning it retains today. There are words like it—think “screwball” and “cheeseball”—that show sometimes you can just add a few letters to the end of a common word to create a brand new category of slang.
Meaning: an attractive display of an unusually muscular male physique
A “beefcake” may actually have been a food during the 1940s, but that definition has long since been eclipsed by the displays of men in very little clothing showing off their muscles. It was based on the female equivalent of these displays, a "cheesecake." Today, it’s used to refer to actors and bodybuilders who may have been in one of these athletic demonstrations back in the day.
Meaning: expensive to make but commercially successful (especially movies)
In an age in which box-office breaking movies are coming out every year—if not every weekend—it’s hard to imagine a “blockbuster” being anything but the newest Marvel flick. The term was originally used to describe a bomb that had destroyed a city block. Later, advertisers used this association when marketing their action-packed war movies, before it became something that could apply to any movie.
Meaning: a member of the Republican party
The Republican party has been calling itself the “Grand Old Party” since the 1850s, with the acronym credited to a T.B. Dowden, a newspaper typesetter who needed to make room for the last two words in a story. It’s unclear why the term took so long to be applied to members of the party, but Dowden’s acronym is still used to shorten headlines today.
1952: The Reds
The Cold War between the USSR and USA defined the second half of the 20th century. During the early 1950s, the conflict heated up as the Cuban Missile Crisis stoked rampant fears of nuclear confrontation. Communists became “the Reds,” so-called for the red flag of the USSR and red star of Communism. The nickname grew in popularity alongside animosity between the two groups.
Meaning: lacking in assurance, sophistication, or self-control
Teens, reliable creators of slang, spend most of their time trying to figure out whether what they’re doing is cool enough to pass muster with their peers. They tend to be trend-setters, and as the consumers of tomorrow, brands are very concerned with their definition of cool and more importantly, what is uncool.
Meaning: cool; a departure from the traditional or conventional
Some slang comes and goes before you realize that what you’re saying isn’t cool anymore. “Far-out” was not one of those words. Another expression originating in the jazz vernacular, it would remain popular through the hippie culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, before fading from popular use.
1955: Idiot box
While today society is worried about the effects of social media and smartphones on children, in the 1950s, they were worried about the television. TV ownership exploded over this decade, and soon became central to American life, with presidential debates and beloved shows like “I Love Lucy” broadcast side by side. Still, some feared that this passive and possibly addictive product could make viewers, especially children, dumber.
Meaning: questionable, suspicious, unreliable
“Hinky” is a word of rather hinky origin itself. Some believe it has roots in an African American slang word from the 1920s, while others claim it comes from gangster slang of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Others believe it may come from an old definition of the verb “hink.” No matter what is correct, it’s still in use today, and an interesting word to add to your lexicon.
Meaning: wonderful; marvelously good
The blend of two words—in this case, “fantastic” and “fabulous”—is known as a portmanteau. This is a common way to create new slang words; think of “ginormous” and or “guesstimate.” In the digital age, these have become even more popular, leading many to use them without even realizing it.
1958: Passion pit
Meaning: a drive-in movie theater
Bemoaning the behavior of “kids these days” is a time-honored tradition that dates back to at least Plato, as every generation seems to forget they had their own ways of causing trouble. In the ‘50s, this occurred in drive-in movie theaters. Instead of watching the newest flicks under the stars, teens often used these occasions as opportunities to get intimate, away from watchful eyes.
Meaning: wildly exciting; razzle-dazzle
This slang term was popularized by the Frank Sinatra song (and album), “Ring-A-Ding-Ding,” which describes the feeling of falling in love. The association of this term with women isn’t Sinatra’s invention, however. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang notes that this was a term for a beautiful woman used during this time.
[Pictured: Marilyn Monroe]
Meaning: hip, trendy; marvelous or excellent
Occasionally, a slang word is born that defines a generation, and groovy is one of them. It started as jazz slang in the 1930s, referring to the grooves in a record, before exploding in popularity during the 1960s and ‘70s during the hippie movement. Today, the word has become the relic of another era, a catch-all used to describe anything that comes from the decade, even baby names.
Meaning: a member of the countercultural movement of the 1960s and ‘70s
“Hippie” comes from the African American slang word “hip,” and the association of that word with the Beats of the 1950s to whom the hippies looked for inspiration. The psychedelic patterns they wore and the music integral to their movement, like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, all color the way we see the 1960s today. At the time, hippie was often used disparagingly towards people who ascribed to this new movement.
1962: Chrome dome
Meaning: a bald person
The hippie movement encouraged men in the movement to wear their hair long or in afros. “Chrome dome” became an insult for those not in the movement, especially those serving in the Vietnam War, who had to get their hair buzzed short to meet military requirements.
Meaning: a huge disappointment
Another word popularized by hippies, “bummer” had a much different meaning in the previous century. Coming from the German slang word “bummler,” it once meant a loafer or idle person before taking on the meaning we know today.
Meaning: to take an unfair amount of something instead of sharing; to bully or force
Humphrey Bogart became one of the biggest actors of the 1940s, after starring in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and “Casablanca” (1942). Though he passed away in 1957, his movies enjoyed a critical and cultural renaissance during the 1960s. Slang immortalized his career by associating his name with the type of character he was best known for playing: a tough guy with a cigarette between his lips.
1965: Flower power
Meaning: the use of peaceful protest to advocate against war
Coined by Beat poet and activist Allen Ginsberg, “flower power” became the hallmark of the hippie generation's anti-Vietnam war advocacy. The philosophy “make love, not war” led the hippies' counter-cultural movement to join with other leftist protests across the country.
1967: Sock it to me
Meaning: give it to me
This phrase became popular thanks to its frequent use on the show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in," which aired from 1968 to 1973. However, the year before the show aired, it also formed a foundational part of the chorus to Aretha Franklin’s cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Franklin claimed in later interviews that she and her sister had come up with the term after hearing it used by girls in their neighborhood.
1968: Can you dig it?
Meaning: Do you understand?
The African American slang of the 1930s continued to be a source of inspiration even 30 years later. It traces its roots to the more literal use of “digging,” getting below the surface of the ground to the metaphoric knowledge beneath. The Monkees used the phrase as a song title in their 1968 feature film “Head,” marking the term's transition past jazz and into the thriving rock 'n' roll scene.
Meaning: dazed or stupefied; lacking focus
A shortening of “spaced-out,” the first appearance of “spacey” in print coincides with the end of the Space Race between the USA and USSR. The quest to be the first nation to put a human on the moon, immortalized in JFK’s “We choose to go the moon” speech in 1962, culminated in the landing of the Apollo 11 space mission on July 20, 1969.
Meaning: to walk with a certain purpose or goal
Taken from a 1930s blues song (“Truckin’ My Blues Away” by Blind Boy Fuller), “truckin’” was popularized in the early ‘70s by a Grateful Dead song of the same name. They in turn were inspired by cartoonist R. Crumb, whose “Keep on Truckin’” comic in Zap Comix earned him an unprecedented amount of fame near the end of the hippie era.
1971: The Man
Meaning: the police; political or societal establishment
In the late ‘60s, the yippie movement grew out of the hippie counterculture. The Youth International Party, founded by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, was anti-establishment, and actively protested the government. “The Man” became shorthand for the government that they wished to replace with their own system, which they deemed more egalitarian.
Meaning: related to the styles and fashions of the past
Kids wearing retro clothes today may be wearing styles from the 1970s, but the 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on the term. Though it’s not always clear what makes an article of clothing or piece of furniture retro as opposed to vintage, the teenagers of 1972 were going through their parents’ clothes in hopes of making yesterday’s fashion the style of the future.
Meaning: a scandal, typically one that involves abuses of office and a cover-up
Watergate was a scandal that would eventually lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It was an earth-shattering revelation to many Americans and would prove to leave a linguistic legacy, as well as a historical one. Today, “-gate” is attached to the end of even the most minor scandals, and people who have never heard of Watergate instantly know that it indicates corruption.
[Pictured: Richard Nixon thumbing up after announcing his resignation from the presidency after the Watergate scandal.]
Meaning: exclamation used to indicate something is a joke
Practical jokes are a time-honored tradition, one that even has its own holiday in April. In the 1970s, when you wanted your friend to know that you weren’t serious about whatever you said or did, you could tack “psyche!” onto the end of your sentence before having a good laugh together. The youth of today might use “jk” or “just kidding” to make the same point.
Meaning: under the influence of drugs, especially marijuana
Though the hippie movement's widespread embrace of drug culture had largely faded by the mid-70s, there remained a strong drug culture in some groups. LSD and marijuana were in steady supply, and their use was perpetuated by stories of rock stars who used them. Nixon—and Reagan in the decade after him—would start the War on Drugs, which increased enforcement and punishment of drug offenses, and is still in place today.
Meaning: dance, especially to rock music
The disco era swept the nation in the mid-70s; a fire that burned hot and fast before finally fizzling in 80s. Movies like “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and songs like KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (1975) immortalized this era of distinctive style and vibrant dance floors.
1977: Brick house
Meaning: a large, curvy woman
The Commodores, the funk band that launched Lionel Richie to stardom, released the song “Brick House” on their 1977 self-titled album. The band created the song in 24 hours. Its title was modified from a more vulgar American idiom.
Meaning: a person who is eccentric, silly, inane
Ditz is a noun formation of the word ditzy, but otherwise its roots are unclear. Some believe it is a corruption from an African American slang term “dicty” which meant “conceited or snobbish.” It’s most often used to describe women, implying that they are not able to think and remember things as well as men.
[Pictured: Goldie Hawn and Carl Reiner posing for their TV show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."]
1979: Catch you on the flip side
Meaning: see you later, see you tomorrow
In the age of smartphones and music streaming, the origins of this idiom may soon become entirely obsolete. The “flip side” refers to the B sides of records, which played the songs record companies didn’t think would sell as well. It was popularized by truckers’ radio lingo in the ‘70s before filtering to a wider audience.
1980: Chill out
Meaning: calm down; relax
Chill out, or telling someone to "take a chill pill," are said to come from the recognition of ADHD in the early ‘80s, and medication used to alleviate the symptoms. These claims, however, may just be a coincidence.
Meaning: excellent; disgusting
Surfers created their own slang in the 1970s, which filtered into the larger community over time. “Gnarly” hit the wider teen population in the early ‘80s, and joined “dude” and “stoked” as words we still recognize today.
Another bit of surfer slang: they used “radical” to mean at the limits of control, such as when the time came to ride a “radical wave.” Other previous uses, such as in radical political parties, also implied moving to the edges of what was expected.
Meaning: a filler word to fill gaps in a speech or thought
Frank Zappa’s song "Valley Girl," sung by his daughter Moon Zappa, parodied the speech of young women in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. This “valley girl” dialect was characterized by an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, leading to it being dubbed "uptalk" by scholars. It was thought to be spoken only by young women and was initially used to deride them, but studies have since shown that all genders use it at least on occasion.
Meaning: someone who uses drugs
John Hughes’ seminal classic “The Breakfast Club” is much-loved for its depiction of the angst and social isolation of one's teenage years. It also deftly uses teen slang from the ‘80s, and seems to have coined some of its own, like wastoid. The word combines “wasted” (being intoxicated) and “-oid” (a suffix meaning "like that").
Meaning: awesome; totally excellent
Another relic of surfer slang, tubular may have been inspired by the tube-like appearance of a wave curving in on itself. These waves are ideal for riding, leading to the association of the word with things that are also ideal.
Meaning: something cool or amazing
The ‘80s seem to have spawned a dozen ways to call something cool. “Righteous” is yet another. Perhaps its most famous usage happens in a scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which a school secretary uses the slang of the day (including several words on this list) to describe all the people who think Ferris is a “righteous dude.”
1987: Cool beans
Meaning: excellent; impressive; somewhere between “fine” and “great”
Catchphrase of DJ Tanner from "Full House," “cool beans” is a nonsense phrase that’s been in use since the 1960s, though it was not popular until the TV show. Its roots are unknown, though one investigation into its etymology found that it possibly stems from the mid-19th century “some beans,” which comes from the phrase “full of beans.” The horse-racing jargon referred to animals passing wind to increase their speed.
1988: What’s your damage?
Meaning: What’s your problem?
Continuing the tradition of slang being born or popularized in movies, “What’s your damage?” is one of the most iconic and enduring phrases from Daniel Waters’ teen satire “Heathers." Waters admits to borrowing some of the movie’s famous lines from people around him: This one came from a young girl at a summer camp where he was a counselor.
1989: Eat my shorts!
Meaning: a dismissal that expresses anger or frustration with someone
“The Simpsons” has been a mainstay of American television for three decades, and its distinctive animation style, characters, and humor have infused pop culture from the moment it aired. Bart Simpson’s famous catchphrase is one of the show's most influential, but it’s one the writers can’t claim for themselves. Voice actor Nancy Cartwright says it was an ad-lib at one of the first table reads of the show, and stuck.
1990: Geek out
Meaning: become excited or enthusiastic about a favored subject or activity, especially those considered to be out of the cultural mainstream
In the early 1900s, “geeks” was another way to describe sideshow acts, shifting in the ‘40s to mean a circus’ “wild men.” The term became associated with those interested in new technology and science fiction at the expense of social graces in the 1980s, as computers became more popular in the home. The word’s derogatory meaning has weakened in recent years, as nerd culture has gone mainstream.
Meaning: best friend
“Bestie,” a word used by young women to describe their close friends, was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. Its addition was a long time coming and, as the OED notes, shows just how much young women influence our language. Linguists have shown that women in general are half a generation ahead of their male counterparts when it comes to speech patterns. So if you want to know how the world will sound 15 years from now, just listen to any 13-year-old girl.
Meaning: great; wonderful; terrific
“Phat,” most likely a misspelling or corruption of fat, was first used to describe attractiveness in a woman. Some claim it’s an acronym for something like “pretty hips and thighs,” though it seems those phrases cropped up after the word itself.
1993: Talk to the hand
Meaning: Don’t talk to me
Accompanied by its distinctive hand gesture, “talk to the hand” was a catchphrase often delivered by comedian Martin Lawrence on his self-titled TV series, and he is sometimes credited with coining the phrase. The 1997 movie “The Beautician and the Beast" also used the catchphrase, adding the gesture, which launched it into wider use.
1994: Alrighty then
"Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" was the movie that launched Jim Carrey from television actor to comedy superstar. Carrey played yet another over-the-top character in this film, and his catchphrase, “alrighty then,” immediately caught on with audiences. Carrey also contributed quite a bit to the script, to great success.
1995: As if
Meaning: yeah, right; I doubt it.
"Clueless" remains a perennial favorite in part because of the many words and phrases it added to America's cultural lexicon. Director Amy Heckerling studied real Beverly Hills high schoolers and asked auditioning actors for slang in order to make sure she was capturing how teens actually talked; she discovered “as if,” used in the lesbian community, this way.
1996: All that and a bag of chips
Meaning: even better; sometimes negatively (as in too much)
Context matters here; the Oxford English dictionary said “all that” began being used to mean good in the late ‘80s, and adding “a bag of chips” means it’s even better. But it can also refer to a person or thing who is stuck-up or conceited. The 1999 teen movie "She’s All That" uses the first definition.
1997: Yadda yadda yadda
Meaning: a phrase to use when what you would say is otherwise too long or meaningless
“The Yada Yada” was an episode in the eighth season of “Seinfeld,” which featured a character who constantly used the phrase in her stories. However, the "Seinfeld" team was far from inventing the term. Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce was known to use the term in the early ‘60s, and it most likely dates back to vaudeville shows before 1940.
Meaning: man, often used as a general term of address
Recent research suggests that “dude” is actually a shortening of “Yankee Doodle,” a man the famous song describes as "fastidious." African American slang began using the term to apply to any man in the mid-60s before it was adopted by surfing culture and spread with the rest of that lingo in the early ‘80s. Unlike gnarly and radical, dude has managed to remain extremely popular. One reason for this could be "The Big Lebowski," the cinematic and cultural phenomenon whose protagonist is simply named “The Dude.”
Meaning: What's up? How are you doing?
Budweiser’s “Whassup?” commercial, showing four friends watching a football game and drinking beer, became wildly popular upon its release, even in countries where Budweiser beer wasn’t sold. Eventually, quoting the phrase stopped being an homage and turned into a part of everyday speech. Studies have found that the majority of consumers hate it when brands use slang, but Budweiser offers a solution: create your own.
Meaning: house; living place
MTV has been welcoming viewers to the cribs of the stars since the start of the new millennium, touring the mansions of the rich and famous. Thieves in the 1800s used a similar term to describe shops and houses. However, most believe the 20th century slang developed separately from its predecessor.
Meaning: to defeat or dominate, especially in a computer game
This deliberate misspelling of “owned” owes its origin to the fact that 'p' and 'o' are right next to each other on American keyboards. This is an example of leet (or l33t) speak, slang that developed on messaging boards in the early ‘80s to avoid suspicious words being flagged by moderators. There’s no real consensus on its origin; some believe it originated in “World of Warcraft,” after a map creator mistyped “owned” in a victory message, while others think it’s a simple, common misspelling.
Meaning: someone who has recently taken up an activity
Sometimes stylized “n00b,” this shortening of “newbie” to its first syllable was used in the early days of the internet to deride new gamers, deemed stupid or unable to grasp how to play. Its meaning has softened in recent years, especially since converging with the more friendly “newb.”
Meaning: to relax
This portmanteau of “chill” and “relax” was first seen in the late ‘90s but didn’t gain popularity until it was used by a character in the horror movie "Final Destination 2." While there are other words with the same meaning, this has become a fun way to tell someone to calm down or let someone know you’re taking a break. It was also used to make fun of former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s habit of making the most of his leisure time.
2004: Awesome sauce
Meaning: amazing, wonderful
“Awesome sauce” was meant to be a humorous play on “weak sauce,” which had been around since the early ‘90s. It was first recorded in the “Homestar Runner” web series, created by Mike and Matt Chapman.
2005: Life hack
Meaning: a tip or piece of advice meant to make everyday life easier
Coined in 2003 by a tech journalist, life hacks are meant to make life easier much in the same way hacking a computer is supposed to provide you with a way in (legal or not). These shortcuts have helped make lives little easier, but have also become an ongoing internet joke, as they occasionally require you to do more work than you would have originally done.
Meaning: totally, really
This word is a shortening of “totally” and is used in much the same way. In honor of this word, some linguists have dubbed derivation of slang by shortening already-existing words “totesing.”
2007: Nom nom
Meaning: an exclamation of the joy of eating
Cookie Monster coined this term after his introduction on “Sesame Street” in the late 1960s, but it didn’t catch on until embraced by the internet in the early 2000s. It appeared on cat memes in 2007 and spread from there, adapting to nearly every part of speech.
Meaning: to explain something to a woman assuming she knows nothing about the topic
Born from a 2008 essay by Rebecca Solnit titled “Men Explain Things to Me," mansplaining (a combination of “man” and “explaining”) is not a knock against every man who explains something to a woman. Rather, it is often used as a feminist critique; it challenges the assumption held by some men that they are by nature more knowledgeable in a certain field.
Meaning: to post on social media (usually Twitter) about a person or topic without naming them outright, usually mocking or critical
Social media has made it necessary to create new words for concepts inconceivable to people even a decade ago. With these concepts come new rules for how we should interact on the new platforms. Subtweeting is a prime example: It’s the word for tweeting about someone without naming them outright and is generally considered to be bad etiquette. However, some argue that this type of post isn’t meant to be rude or confrontational, but rather is a shout into the void or a way to express your feelings or sense of humor.
Meaning: to plant an idea in someone's head
Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” was a critical and commercial hit upon its release, and changed the language of science-fiction. The movie tells the story of a man who brings together a team of criminals to plant an idea in the head of the antagonist in his dreams. The word became a catch-all for many of the movie’s concepts, including planting an idea from an outside source, as well as concepts concerning lucid dreaming.
Meaning: to achieve something beyond expectation
2011 saw actor Charlie Sheen fired from his sitcom “Two and Half Men” after a series of bizarre statements in interviews and public incidents as he attempted to seek help for struggles with addiction. In several interviews, Sheen says, “The only thing I’m addicted to right now is winning." This new catchphrase achieved further cultural resonance when some intrepid internet user edited the interview into a viral song.
Meaning: you only live once
It was hard to go anywhere in 2012 without seeing “YOLO” printed across bags or hearing it being screamed by teenagers making poor choices. The word was picked up by teens and young adults quickly, but its overuse and adoption by adults and brands led to its quick death, though not before some declared it the worst word of the year.
Meaning: entertainment that’s designed to be enjoyable for viewers to consume in very few sittings
Netflix revolutionized the way the world watched television, with the release of the first season of political drama “House of Cards” marking a watershed moment. The first series produced by a streaming platform, Netflix decided to release the entire season in one day, instead of pacing it out with periodic releases. It allowed viewers to race through the whole thing in a sitting or two. This was quickly dubbed binge-watching, and the series that met the criteria were described as bingeable. In recent years, Netflix has attempted to distance itself from the term, due to its association with eating disorders.
Meaning: knowledgeable and actively attentive of social justice or progressive issues
Adopted from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), this word has circulated in black activist circles for years. It reached wider social use after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from this moment, and its encouragement for supporters to “stay woke” has kept the term alive in the ever-changing language of activism and justice.
Meaning: to abruptly stop responding to someone's messages
The advent of online dating has changed the way interact with one another while searching for a potential partner and in relationships more broadly. “Ghosting” has become a common way for people to end relationships without any warning. The fast-paced mentality of apps like Tinder and Bumble can make it easy to become a phantom to anyone you're not interested in seeing again.
Meaning: awesome; excellent
Lit has been slang forever, but until recently it was just another word for intoxicated, a usage first recorded in the 1900s. Rap lyrics used lit to describe the wild atmosphere of a party. From there, it expanded to describe anything wild or excellent. Brands have recently taken to using lit to seem hip or cool, potentially leading to its disuse if teens feel it’s becoming mainstream or corporatized.
Meaning: over the top, excessive behavior; overly dramatic
Like many slang terms, especially those in the 21st century, this word has its roots in AAVE. Originally it was used to somewhat mock the behaviors of those deemed “extra,” but over time its connotations have shifted, and it now describes a character trait that people gladly claim for themselves.
2018: Dumpster fire
Meaning: a total disaster, mismanaged catastrophe, or laughable performance
It may not be a new phrase, per se, but in 2018 "dumpster fire" was one of 850 new words officially added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It's a gleefully expressive noun that, according to NPR, has become a "phrase for our time." Given its new, exalted status, "dumpster fire" can now be freely and confidently used as a metaphor for any epic fail, train wreck situation, or a general hot mess.
Meaning: to be a devoted fan
Retrospectively explained as a portmanteau of "stalker" and "fan," a stan is a person harboring an obsessive fixation, usually a celebrity. The term originates from the song of the same name released by Eminem in 2000, where the titular character is driven to a murder-suicide by his fixation on the rapper. The term no longer carries the same dark overtones and instead is used to describe people who seem more dedicated than the average fan.