June 18, 2015

2000s: 10 Words That Define a Decade

The zeitgeist of the 2000s left its mark on the language, with words that reflected a decade rife with traumatic events, rapid and often disruptive change, and rising skepticism about once-respected institutions.

By Patrick J. Kiger

Every decade seems to trigger a flood of new words into American’s vocabulary. Some words reflect the influences and changes in our lives—from new inventions and pop culture trends to larger events that have a powerful impact upon us. The zeitgeist of the 2000s left its mark on the language, with words that reflected a decade rife with traumatic events, rapid and often disruptive change, and rising skepticism about once-respected institutions. Here are 10 of the words that help to define the 2000s, gleaned from sources ranging from the editors of Merriam-Webster’s reference library to the American Dialect Society, an organization of language scholars and aficionados. If the past is any guide, many of these are likely to fade from the language as changing times spawn new buzzwords.

2000: Chad

This obscure term for the tiny scrap of cardboard that pokes out from an old-fashioned manual punch-card ballot came to symbolize the perplexing closeness of the disputed Presidential election of that year, in which for a time the outcome seemed to hinge upon whether a few Florida ballots with “hanging chads” would be counted.

2001: 9-11.

The abbreviation for the date of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon became a part of the vocabulary literally overnight when it was used by most newspapers. It’s a sign of how radically the traumatic event changed the world that “9-11” became widely used even in places outside the U.S., where by convention it actually meant November 9.

2002: WMD.

The acronym for “weapons of mass destruction,” a term for nuclear, biological or chemical arms, abruptly became familiar. Proponents of invading Iraq warned—incorrectly, as it turned out—that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed a viable secret arsenal of WMDs that he might possibly use against the U.S. or provide to terrorists. Thus, began the charge for the War on Terror.

2003: Googled.

A BBC News article that year noted that Americans had converted the name of the popular search engine into a verb, reflecting their growing reliance upon its technology as an everyday information source. That trend that apparently alarmed Google itself. The company’s attorneys sent a stern letter to lexicographer Paul McFedries, asking him to delete it from his Word Spy website or else note that the name was trademarked.

Screenshot courtesy of The Internet Archive Way Back Machine

2003: Googled 

2004: Blog.

Merriam-Webster picked blog as its word of the year, recognizing the still-nascent trend of user-created content that in a few years would accelerate with the advent of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

2005: Truthiness.

Comedian Stephen Colbert , who parodied a right-wing TV commentator on his program “The Cobert Report,” introduced this flagrantly made-up word in an October broadcast, to describe the inclination to twist facts to conform with a speaker’s ideological bias. Colbert pretended to champion truthiness, by disparaging people who rely upon facts and lauding “those who know with their heart.”

2006: Decider.

President George W. Bush used this term in a 2006, to explain why he wasn’t heeding those who were urging him to fire then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best,” Bush explained. It came to exemplify Bush’s hard-headed, aggressive leadership style for both supporters and critics who derided him as the “decider-in-chief”—even though Bush did eventually relent and dismiss Rumsfeld.

2007: w00t.

Merriam-Webster picked a bit of slang from online gamers, who often mixed numbers into words to create their own esoteric lingo. It was short for “we owned the other team,” but what it really showed was the rising influence of an alternative, youth-oriented digital culture.

2008: Bailout.

In September of that year, with troubles at major banks and investment firms threatening to cause a catastrophic collapse of the financial markets, President Bush was compelled to sign into law a plan that allowed the Treasury Department to buy $700 billion worth of troubled assets. As the nation nevertheless sank into a brutal economic slowdown, the word bailout left a bitter taste on the lips of ordinary people. According to a CNN poll, most believed that that the tax-supported reprieve for bankers and investors wouldn’t help them.

2009: Tweet.

There was a time when birds tweeted. But by the end of the decade it had come to denote the posting of a comment on the increasingly popular and crucial social network Twitter, and epitomize an age in which everyone’s thoughts were expressed continuously, and crammed into 140 characters.

Screenshot courtesy of The Internet Archive Way Back Machine

2009: Tweet

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