Achy-breaky words: the language of the nineties
Though they’re well over a decade past, the nineties occupy an unusual place in the cultural zeitgeist. A whole new decade has come and gone since, and yet popular culture still has yet to decide what precisely the nineties were “about”. For better or for worse, many of the decades preceding the nineties have their very own culture and “personality” of sorts which defines them.
If you mention an “eighties film” or a sixties-themed party to someone, they almost always immediately know exactly the kind of atmosphere and style you are referring to. Yet somehow, if someone were to mention the idea of a “nineties film” or that something “looks like it’s from the nineties,” that picture may not be so clear. Perhaps some people have a handle on what they view as the “personality” of the nineties, but it’s hard to argue that the decade is as well-defined as the few preceding it. However, far from being a banal decade free of excitement or style, the nineties were a great time of change and upheaval throughout the world, and one need look no further than language to figure out how. Though the nineties occupy a murky space in the minds of many, the words and phrases that first originated in the nineties reveal that the decade had a personality all its own.
The rising popularity of the internet and the rapid growth of technology may be thought of as defining factors of the 2000s, but personal computing and the advent of mobile communication were already well underway in the nineties, and, as a result, many of the terms that are used very commonly today in the world of technology originated in the nineties. While the prefix has been in use since at least the 1960s, we only began to see use of cyber (defined as “of or relating to the culture of computers, virtual reality, or the internet) in its adjectival form popularized in the nineties—along with many nouns which take the prefix (cyberland, cybershops, cyberpet, cyberpunk, etc.)—as people became accustomed to the digital world that was rapidly growing in size, quality, and importance.
With the modern-day internet coming into prominence in the nineties, use during this time of terms like web site, URL, and dotcom should come as no surprise; however, many other technological terms that came from the nineties likely will. Though they wouldn’t become much more common until the mid-‘00s, WiFi and even 3G have been in use since at least the mid to late nineties. There is evidence that the terms SMS and text message were also used in the nineties despite the fact that texting would not become very popular until the following decade, as is the case with e-reader and webcam.
Japan experienced a growth in technology even more rapid than that of Europe or the United States during the nineties, and their growing cultural and technological influence around the world led to quite a few of words of Japanese origin being adopted into popular use in English. Otaku, a plural noun generally used to refer to someone fluent in the minute details of a solitary hobby, as well as the term cosplay (dressing up as a fictional character), both gained popularity in the west during the nineties thanks to the rising popularity of certain aspects of Japanese culture outside Japan itself.
Cosplay has since become a very well-known practice among fans of video games, comics, anime, and many other forms of pop culture worldwide. Otaku is more often used to express someone’s interest in Japanese hobbies than anything else; a fan might say that they are “otaku” of a certain Japanese show or of anime in general. However, the term was originally used often more pejoratively; for example, one 1992 article in British culture magazine The Face used phrases like “socially inept” and “technological shut-ins”, alongside less disparaging ones like “information-crazed, often brilliant” to describe otaku. The term emoji (the Japanese equivalent of emoticon, which itself originated in the very early nineties) has become increasingly popular outside Japan thanks to the eponymous iPhone app – the word entered the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in December 2013 – but, again, it actually originated in the nineties.
Slang of the nineties
Though many of the slang terms of the nineties haven’t exactly stood the test of time, most people who lived through the decade would be hard-pressed to forget their cultural relevancy. Thanks to the country stylings of Billy Ray Cyrus, the term achy-breaky (meaning sad or hurt) originated and became popular in the nineties. The term crunk, which would in the following decade refer to a new subgenre of hip-hop music, also came into use around 1995 as a slang adjective originating in the U.S. meaning “very excited or energized”. Of course, not many could forget Y2K, computing slang that referred not only to the year 2000 but also to the anticipated (but ultimately almost universally nonexistent) problems that would occur when computer systems switched to the year 2000.
Many popular words originated in the nineties that had their roots in books or films. Interestingly enough, many of these terms weren’t even from works of the nineties at all; the term Eeyorish, referring to the melancholy donkey Eeyore from Winnie-The-Pooh, became a popular adjective meaning “deeply pessimistic or gloomy” during the nineties (even though A.A. Milne’s children’s book was published in 1926) and eventually even entered the OED. The term Scooby was also used in the nineties, not only to refer to the famous cartoon canine Scooby-Doo, but also as a synonym for the word clue (e.g. “I don’t have a Scooby as to why this is happening”). Amusingly, and perhaps most surprisingly, the term shagadelic originated not from the sixties but from a parody of the sixties (and 1960s spy films): Austin Powers. The word actually gained enough popularity to enter the popular vernacular in the nineties (and the OED in 2007) when the first film in the series was released.
Unexpected words of the nineties
Like many of the terms relating to technology, there are a lot of other nineties words in the OED that seem anachronistic. However, this is not only true of words expected to be added after the nineties but also of words that seem as though they would have been added long before. Interestingly, portobello, though a common term for a certain type of edible mushroom which has been cultivated for several centuries, is currently first recorded in the nineties. It is also somewhat surprising that the term mullet (a hairstyle in which the front and sides are cut short and the back kept long) didn’t reach its peak popularity until the nineties, when it was said to have been apparently coined and certainly popularized by the Beastie Boys in their 1994 song Mullet Head. Terms like these (and many others) show that, although the nineties aren’t always remembered as vividly or as often as the decades before them, they were a time of great social and technological change that fostered linguistic productivity.