A Guardian story by David Ward lists 101 buzzwords, one for each year from 1904 to 2004, as given by Susie Dent in her new book Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report. It’s UK-oriented (or should I say -orientated?), so there are entries like whizzo (1905), tiddly-om-pom-pom (1909), naff all (1977), and OK yah (1985); furthermore, the years given are not (as one would expect) the year in which a given word was especially inescapable but the first year for which the OED has a citation (for gene, 1911: W. Johannsen in Amer. Naturalist XLV. 132, I have proposed the terms ‘gene’ and ‘genotype’.. to be used in the science of genetics). With those caveats in mind, the list is a lot of fun, and educational too—who knew hip went back to 1904? (G. V. Hobart Jim Hickey i. 15 At this rate it’ll take about 629 shows to get us to Jersey City, are you hip?) Thanks to Nick Jainschigg for the tip!


  1. I’ve always used the word buzzword in much more restrictive way than the Guardian article. That is, to me a “buzzword” refers to word which usually has one or more legitimate meanings that suddenly sweeps through business environments (by way of boardrooms and seminars) with a new, vague, and useless meaning attached to it. For example, leverage, synergy, proactive, silo, quality, etc. Business buzzwords are both high-sounding and essentially meaningless, both to create the illusion of productivity and to facilitate irresponsibility.
    I can buy the more generic definition (“any word that makes a buzz”), but that leaves me without a word specifically for the business-related use of purposefully vague words.
    On topic: I recently read a long discussion on the history of hip. It included the 1904 citation and lots and lots of highly unlikely etymologies (mostly Afrocentric–Wolof was one). It was in a forum I am not a member of, so I couldn’t post the unlikely etymology I’d read: That the term comes from the opium culture of the late 19th century. “On the hip” meant that you were an opium smoker (from the posture adopted in opium dens).

  2. Yeah, I’ve seen the Wolof etymology too; I haven’t seen any evidence of continuity of use from the period in which slaves spoke Wolof, so I’m dubious (far too many such attempted etymologies simply assume that if you can find a similar word in a West African language, the job is done), but I suppose there must be some evidence, because the AHD gives it as a possibility (“Perhaps from Wolof hipi, hepi, to open one’s eyes, be aware”). The OED, though, simply says “Origin unknown,” and that seems safer to me.

  3. Doug Sundseth says

    LH: “…(or should I say -orientated?)”
    “Orientificated”, by analogy with “pontificated” or “splificated”, however, is an acceptable metamorphosis.

  4. I found it: the discussion of “hip” was on Language Log – not a forum, but no comments.
    The discusssion reminds of jazz, a word which most dictionaries give as “origin unknown,” but which has attracted some of the stupidest etymologies, often from otherwise scholarly sources. The one thing everything shies away from: whatever the etymology of jazz, it’s almost certainly the same as the etymology of gism (with all the four-letter words in dictionaries, why is this one usually absent?). My pet theory: jazz comes from the Latin jacere (the same root as for ejaculate) or non-Latin cognate thereof, by way of some intermediate language, possibly a French dialect, or maybe that Irish Gypsy dialect whose name escapes me. (See Dick Sudhalter’s book Lost Chords for the Irish connection.)

  5. No, there’s no verifiable evidence for the Wolof etymology, no matter what AHD4 says. I don’t know who first came up with it, though, because in Majors’ Juva to Jive, he references probably a dozen other books at the entry for “hip,” and I don’t have all of those books to check. His work as a whole is sub-par, but it’s the best we have so far. Too bad John Leland, in his new book Hip: The History made the mistake of using Majors’ work as the key source for defining his core theme: it gives away the fact that Leland is using tertiary sources, and calls his entire book into question. You’d think for that one thing he’d have gone to the ground for it.
    “Buzzword” is interesting to see being used. It’s one of the Google News Alerts I have set up (including “buzz word”). I see many people use it to mean any trend, rather than a piece of jargon being slung around (which is how I would define it): buzzword OR “buzz word”. It’s also sometimes used to mean a mood, a person, or a guiding rule, as long as that thing is believed to be common (and it often isn’t: journalists call many things buzzwords that aren’t by any definition, but they do it because they want to give their story currency and a sense of being on top of trends). I’d say “buzzword” is more often used dismissively than approvingly. I suspect it’s headed the same way the term “political correctness” has long since gone.
    Coined is another one people use oddly. To some, “to coin” is a synonym for “to dub (with a name or nickname).”

  6. My pet theory: jazz comes from the Latin jacere (the same root as for ejaculate) or non-Latin cognate thereof, by way of some intermediate language, possibly a French dialect, or maybe that Irish Gypsy dialect whose name escapes me. (See Dick Sudhalter’s book Lost Chords for the Irish connection.)
    Bah. I’m a skeptic until you can show me citations for this or any derivation of jazz. I think the jism theory is more likely, only because there’s some slight circumstantial evidence.

  7. …should be Juba to Jive

  8. Dave Wilton is a very reliable source of information on word origins. Read all about it here.

  9. Well, Dave and his cohort of judicious logophiles, such as Eliza.

  10. Well, Grant, I’m a crackpot at heart, so you’re right to be skeptical. Anyway, the pet theory (L. jacere, see also jet) applies to both jazz and jism, which, I’m convinced, are the verb and noun forms of the same word. In early porn contexts, the word jazz is usually a verb, usually transitive, while jism is always a noun.
    When Tom Brown came to Chicago from New Orleans in 1915, he called his band a “jass band” as (I believe) an in-joke on the Yankees (like Mike Myers using the title “The Spy Who Shagged Me” in America). It’s a short trip from there to jazz as a noun for a style of music.
    Basically, if an obscenity entered the English language during the 19th century, it’s damn near impossible to trace because the taboo against obscenities in print was well in place. There’s plenty of evidence (albeit anecdotal) that the word jazz was a well-known but extremely coarse vulgarity in Southern and Western American English by the post-Civil War era, but was basically unknown in the North, East, and Midwest.
    But now I feel I’ve strayed too far off topic with my little obsession.

  11. In what sense was sex new in 1929, or green in 1971? What was Generation X in 1952, a decade before the first X-ers (in today’s sense) were born?
    Most of these words are, um, pan-Anglospheric but what are whizzo, tiddly-om-pom-pom, hot-desking, kitten heels, ghetto fabulous ?
    Grant Barrett: if you hyphenate buzz-word, Google also matches both buzzword and buzz word.

  12. In what sense was sex new in 1929, or green in 1971?
    In the senses of “Sexual intercourse” and “Of, pertaining to, or supporting environmentalism,” respectively. (1929 D. H. LAWRENCE Pansies 57 If you want to have sex, you’ve got to trust At the core of your heart, the other creature.)
    Oddly, greens used to have a sense “Sexual activity, esp. intercourse”:
    1889 BARRÈRE & LELAND Dict. Slang I. 429 ‘To have one’s greens’, to have sexual intercourse.

Speak Your Mind