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.