20 Words Turning 100 in 2019


In the year 1919, some of the world’s preeminent thinkers were busy inventing the rotary dial telephone and pop-up toaster, signing the Treaty of Versailles, and forming the League of Nations, which preceded the United Nations. They were also dabbling in clever wordplay and coining some snazzy new terms.

Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler tool shows you the words that were first recorded in any given year—from 1472 to 2016—and some of the ones from 1919 might surprise you. Here are a few of our favorite newfangled terms from 100 years ago.

1. Anti-stress

The adjective anti-stress came along decades before de-stress, which was introduced to the English language in 1979. It refers to anything that prevents or alleviates stress.

2. Apple-knocker

You may have attended an apple-knocker wedding in the past. The 1919 sense of the word meant “rustic,” but Dictionary.com states it could also mean “uncouth” or “rude.” A newspaper article from 1927 described an apple-knocker as “a peculiar type of human being who insists upon doing and saying things that, while offering satisfaction to himself, causes mental and physical inconvenience to others.”

3. Balletomane

Ballet dancers in white tutus

Swan Lake lovers, this one's for you: A balletomane is a devotee of ballet. It stems from the Russian baletoman, which unites the words ballet (balet) and mania (maniya). Balletomania is the noun.

4. Bats

Unlike the animal, which Merriam-Webster defines in the singular form, bat with an s is a synonym of batty—as in mentally unstable or unhinged.

5. Beavertail

This curiously named plant is a prickly pear cactus that grows in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. British pastries known as arlettes are also sometimes called beavertails, but that reference came later.

6. Complimentary close

You might not realize there’s a term for the words you use to close an email (or, in the case of our 1919 predecessors, a letter). The phrase that comes before your signature and expresses your "regard for the receiver”—such as “sincerely yours”—is considered a complimentary close.

7. Danish pastry

Cherry Danish pastry with vanilla icing
iStock.com/Lauri Patterson

This delicious and often fruit-filled pastry isn’t actually Danish at all. The treats are called “Viennese bread” in Denmark because they were brought to the country by Austrians. Nowadays, we just call them Danishes—even if it is a misnomer.

8. Didgeridoo

This fun-to-say instrument invented by Australian aborigines first wormed its way into the English language in 1919. It’s essentially a bamboo or wooden trumpet.

9. Dunker

This early sports term is straightforward enough: It refers to a basketball player who makes dunk shots. The sport itself was invented 28 years earlier at Springfield College in Massachusetts.

10. Fanboy

This term for “a boy or man who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something” predates our internet-fueled obsession with celebrities. The female equivalent, fangirl, didn’t roll around until 1934.

11. Golden retriever

These very good golden boys were first bred in Scotland in 1865. A breeder mated a yellow retriever with a Tweed water spaniel, and their offspring became a new breed of dog that would later be called golden retrievers.

12. Jigsaw puzzle

White jigsaw puzzle on a red table with one piece missing
iStock.com/yejin kang

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle were cut with a vertical reciprocating saw called a jigsaw in the early 1900s—hence the name jigsaw puzzle. (Before that, they were known as dissected maps or dissected pictures).

13. Outgas

No, this doesn’t refer to a farting contest, but rather the removal of gases from a material or space (usually by heating).

14. Phooey

What in tarnation? This interjection, used to “express repudiation or disgust,” has probably been in use before your grandpa was born. Some other fun synonyms include faugh, phew, yech, and rats.

15. Putsch

We can thank the Swiss German language for this word. Also known as a coup d'état, it refers to “a secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to overthrow a government.”

16. Polyphiloprogenitive

Philoprogenitive refers to a fondness for children or the tendency to make a lot of babies. Phil means loving, and the Latin progenitus means begot. Add a poly to it and you get someone or something that’s “extremely prolific” when it comes to creating new life. T.S. Eliot likely coined the term in his religious poem "Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service."

17. Skivvies

Blue boxer shorts hanging on a line drying

If you’re looking to spice up your vocabulary, swap out underpants for skivvies. According to one newspaper article from 1927, this word started out as U.S. Navy slang.

18. Snooty

Snobby is a slightly older term, having first been documented in 1846, but snooty also gets the point across. If you don’t like either of those words, try snotty, potty, or the chiefly British term toffee-nosed.

19. Superpimp

This word is exactly what you’d expect: a very successful pimp. How one defines success of this nature is another question entirely.

20. Xanadu

Long before Xanadu was an awesomely terrible movie starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, it meant “an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 poem "Kubla Khan" refers to a place called Xanadu, and his rich imagery “fired public imagination and ultimately contributed to the transition of Xanadu from a name to a generalized term for an idyllic place,” Merriam-Webster notes. It also happened to be the name of Charles Foster Kane's fictional estate in Citizen Kane (1941).

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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