New phrases are often coined to capture new thoughts, phenomena or ideas that are in the public consciousness. In the 1990s, with the internet entering many American homes for the first time, preexisting words like “bug” suddenly had a whole new definition, as a computer flaw or virus. The internet also provided the medium needed to help these new words be widely shared around the world and be used in daily life.
To identify the top word every year since 1990, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the list of Words of the Year organized by the American Dialect Society (ADS). Words of the year are voted on at the ADS annual conference that takes place in January each year.
These words are highly location-dependent. In recent years, many of the words of the year have come from significant news events in American politics, like the Black Lives Matter movement or the Trump administration itself.
1990 – Bushlips
Bushlips has come to mean insincere political rhetoric. It stems from when former President George H.W. Bush said “Read my lips – no new taxes” after accepting the 1988 Republican nomination for president. Bush would go on to break his promise. The term bushlips references the line, while making it sound like another, less polite, B-word that also refers to something untrue.
Something that is described as the “Mother of all” things of its kind is the greatest or most impressive in its group. In 1991, the U.S. intervened in Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein threatened to give America the “mother of all battles,” but his forces were quickly defeated.
1992 – “Not!”
1993 – Information Superhighway
1994 – Cyber/Morph (tie)
1996 – Mom
As in soccer mom, a newly significant type of voter. A Washington Post article coined the term, referring to overworked middle-class mothers who drive her kids to soccer practice. Both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole spent a lot of their 1996 presidential bids convincing “soccer moms” to vote for them.
1997 – Millennium bug
Also known as Y2K bug or Y2K problem, many feared that computers would think that the year after 1999 is 1900 and that would throw their operating systems into disarray. This, of course, never materialized.
1998 – Prefix e-
For “electronic” as in e-mail and newly prominent e-commerce.
1999 – Y2K
2000 – Chad
A small scrap of paper punched from a voting card (“Hanging Chad”). As the tightly contested 2000 presidential election was being decided in Florida, election officials had to decide whether ballots with so-called hanging chads — ballots with incompletely punched holes — should be thrown out or counted.
2001 – 9/11
Referring to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
2002 – WMD
Weapon of mass destruction, cited as the reason for invading Iraq in 2003. No WMDs were ever found in the country.
2003 – Metrosexual
A metrosexual is a fashion-conscious heterosexual male. Shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” helped usher in this new kind of masculinity where men are comfortable taking good care of their hair and skin, and wearing nice clothing.
2004 – Red/Blue/Purple state
This color system became a new way to think about the political tendencies of U.S. states or areas for the 2004 presidential election. Red represents Republicans and blue favors Democrats. Purple, the combination of red and blue, represented undecided and divided places.
2005 – Truthiness
The quality that something seems or feels true, even though it actually may not be, according to known facts. This word was first coined by Stephen Colbert on his Comedy Central program “The Colbert Report.”
2006 – Plutoed
To be demoted or devalued, referencing how Pluto was demoted by The International Astronomical Union from being a planet to a “dwarf planet” in 2006.
2007 – Subprime
An adjective used to describe a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage or investment. This became a household term in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession.
2008 – Bailout
2009 – Tweet
A noun, meaning a brief message sent by way of the social media platform Twitter. It is also a verb, meaning the act of sending that kind of message.
2010 – App
Application program for a computer or phone operating system. Apple’s iPhone advertising slogan “there’s an app for that” became ubiquitous in 2010.
2011 – Occupy
Verb, noun and combining form referencing the Occupy protest movement. Activists, who blamed the top 1% of earners for plunging the world economy into crisis, protested near Wall Street in New York before branching out to other locations.
2012 – #hashtag
A word or phrase preceded by a hash symbol (#), used on Twitter to mark a topic, allowing everyone to weigh in on the issue of the day. These hashtags soon became a way of seeing what Twitter users were talking about most.
2014 – #blacklivesmatter
Hashtag used to protest violence against black people killed at the hands of police or others. It started after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida and gained national prominence after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The phrase has become a rallying cry against police brutality.
2015 – They
Gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, particularly as a nonbinary identifier.
2016 – Dumpster fire
2017 – Fake news
Fake news has come to mean different things to the different sides of U.S. politics. First coined by President Trump, his supporters claim fake news is disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news. Trump detractors define it as actual news claimed to be untrue because it is unflattering to Trump. Many things that Trump has claimed were “fake news” have eventually been proved to be true.
2018 – Tender-age shelter
Tender-age shelter is a euphemistic phrase for the government-run detention centers that have housed the children of asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border. Border Patrol officials have defined “tender-age” children as those under 5 years old.