What Words Were First Recorded the Year You Were Born? Merriam-Webster Breaks it Down

iStock.com/BrianAJackson
iStock.com/BrianAJackson

We now know memes as images with funny captions that get shared across social media, but the term has actually been around far longer than the internet. Scientist and author Richard Dawkins coined it in 1976, using it to mean “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” according to Merriam-Webster’s definition. That same year also saw the rise of barbie, body piercing, extra-virgin (as in olive oil), killer bee, PMS, pooper-scooper, skeevy, trail mix, and ‘tude.

Thanks to Merriam-Webster’s online “Time Traveler” tool, it’s now easier than ever to look back at a particular year or century and see which words were recorded for the very first time. For instance, you can select your birth year—any other bestie babies out there?—or read up on the words that emerged during a particular point in history. (We checked the 1590s, when Shakespeare was producing some of his best work, and a few of the words were quite fitting: avenging, bloodstained, self-sacrifice, and to-be.)

It might also be a surprise to learn just how long certain words have been around. Clickbait and vape, for instance, were first recorded in 1999, and bae has been around since at least 1983. The earliest year included on the Time Traveler tool is 1472, and if you go back any further, it’s broken down by century. “Before the 12th century" is the oldest category listed.

It's important to note that the tool tracks the “first known use date” of a word, but its first usage might actually be older. “The date most often does not mark the very first time that the word was used in English,” Merriam-Webster notes. “Many words were in spoken use for decades or even longer before they passed into the written language. The date is for the earliest written or printed use that the editors have been able to discover.”

Still, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the written history of many English words. Some of the newest ones are slang terms or words that stem from digital culture, like manspreading (2014), bingeable (2013), hot take (2012), blockchain (2011), and Instagram (2010). We were also given aquafaba—the liquid that results when beans are cooked in water—in 2015. So there’s that.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why is Winnie the Pooh Called a Pooh?

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Since A.A. Milne published the first official Winnie the Pooh story in 1926, the character has become beloved by children across many generations. Milne’s writing clearly struck a chord, and the character’s many subsequent TV and film adaptations have endeared him to an even wider audience.

But why is Winnie called a Pooh rather than a bear? Given that most children (and grown-ups, for that matter) have a different idea of what a Pooh is, how has the name stuck?

The answer lies back in the 1920s.

In fact, when first introduced by Milne, Winnie wasn’t even Winnie. Initially, he went by the name of Edward Bear, before changing to Winnie in time for that aforementioned official 1926 debut. The "Winnie" part of the name came from a visit to the London Zoo, where Milne saw a black bear who had been named after the city of Winnipeg, Canada.

As for Pooh? Well, originally Pooh was a swan, a different character entirely.

In the book When We Were Very Young (the same book that introduced Edward Bear), Milne wrote a poem, telling how Christopher Robin would feed the swan in the mornings.

He told how Christopher Robin had given the swan the name "Pooh," explaining that “this is a very fine name for a swan, because if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him."

Milne indeed knew what he was doing by using such a word. The names "Winnie" and "Pooh" were soon brought together, and Winnie the Pooh was born. Milne still took a little time out to explain why Winnie was a Pooh, though.

As he would write in the first chapter of the first Winnie the Pooh book, “But his arms were so stiff ... they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think—but I am not sure—that that is why he is always called Pooh."

It's not the most convincing explanation, but it's a formal explanation nonetheless.

Not that the reasoning ultimately mattered too much. The name stuck, having never seen a focus group in its life. A much loved childhood character, with a vaguely funny name, would go on to superstardom. And even be honored with his own holiday, Winnie the Pooh Day, which occurs annually on January 18th.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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