Words from the 1990s

Words from the 1990s

In the light of events two decades on, stirrings in the European undergrowth in the 1990s induce dark forebodings. The European Community was enlarging itself, and showing distinctly federalist tendencies. Under the terms of the 1992 Maastricht treaty, it transformed itself into the European Union (the terminology came into force officially in 1993, but is first recorded in 1983), abbreviated to EU (1990). Such developments were not to the liking of Eurosceptical (1990) elements within the ruling Conservative party in Britain. They were encouraged in their doom-laden predictions by Black Wednesday (1992), in which Britain was forced ignominiously to abandon its membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Meanwhile, slews of new euro- compounds hit the dictionaries, from the serious (such as euro note (1995), referring to the new European currency) to the sarcastic (such as eurosausage (1994)).

In the general election of 1997, the British Conservative government suffered a crushing defeat. Taking the Tories’ place, New Labour (1992): a transformed Labour party which had abandoned its more extreme socialist policies in favour of the third way (a buzzword of the 1990s, though it had some limited currency before). Under Blairism (1994), welfare to work (1981) and tough love (1981) were the thing. Having taken the lesson of more than a decade of internecine strife, the new government made sure its supporters stuck close to the party line: to be off-message (1992) was the greatest crime. Labour had learned well from the Clintonites (1992) in the US how to gain and hold on to power.

The get-rich-quick-and-flaunt-it society of the 80s had evaporated in the recession of the early 90s. Essex man (a working-class Conservative voter supposedly to be found in Essex; 1990) was no more (his place taken by Islington person (a middle-class Labour voter; 1994)), and Essex girl (a brash young woman supposedly to be found in Essex; 1991) was keeping a lower profile. It was forecast as the ‘caring decade’, although Generation X (the disaffected younger generation; coined in 1952, but brought to prominence by Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture (1991)) did not find it so, and neither probably did jobseekers (in existence as a general term since the 1850s, but elevated to official status in the UK in the 1990s).

Confidence returned with the end of the recession, and Britain reinvented itself as Cool Britannia (a coinage of the 1960s, but now applied specifically to trendy British art, pop, film, and fashion; 1992), proprietor of Britpop (1986). For entertainment, people had docusoaps (1991) on TV, Aga sagas (1992) in the bookshops, and red top (1995) tabloids on the news-stands. At work, there was a good chance you would be hot desking (1991), and the new institution of dress-down Friday (1993) reached Britain from the US.

You might be loved-up (1991) on ecstasy, or simply a little squiffy after a few alcopops (1996) (but not at the local gastropub (1996), where the accent was more on food than drink). Hopefully the result would not be an ASBO (antisocial behaviour order; 1997). Bad fashion choice of the decade was the mullet (1994) hairstyle (albeit not the inspiration for the metaphorical bad hair day (1991)).

Cybernauts (1989) and Netties (1985) surfed the World Wide Web (1990) (or the Web (1990) for short). To be in the swim you had to have your own website (1993) or homepage (1993) or blog (1999), or you could communicate via SMS (short message service; 1991). It was the decade of all things cyber-: cybercrime (1991), cybersex (1991), cybershoppers (1994), cyberwar (1992), etc., etc. You would hope to avoid the spam (1994) and the mail bombs (1994), but the main fear in the cybercafé (1994) was the dreaded millennium bug (1995), which threatened to make the world’s computer systems crash when the clocks chimed midnight on 31 December 1999. At least cyberpets (electronic toys that need regular stimuli; 1995), such as the tamagotchi (1997), would not be affected; they only succumbed if you neglected them.

Editor’s note: the first citation represents only the earliest documented use yet found by OED researchers; a word may have been in circulation somewhat earlier.

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