In Dazed and Confused, one of the truly great works of art of the 1990s, the intellectual Cynthia puts forward the “every other decade theory”: “The '50s were boring. The '60s rocked. The '70s, my God, they obviously suck,” she says. “So maybe the '80s will be, like, radical.” They were! But by this theory, the '90s were not.
1. 110 Percent
It was the amount you gave when you were giving your very best. Its logical impossibility made it the premise of a joke in a 1992 episode of The Simpsons. By 1998, it was still so popular that it landed on Lake Superior State University’s annual Banished Words List.
Spell it with one D or two, pair it with bada-boom, and … bada-bing bada boom … you have an unpretentious '90s catchphrase, meaning “Voilà!” Though the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the term was used in 1965, eight of its 11 citations are from the '90s, it was on the Banished Words List in 1994, and was the name of the gentlemen's club in HBO's The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999.
It wasn’t in the Scrabble dictionary until 2014, but according to Merriam-Webster, buzzkill—defined as “one that has a depressing or negative effect”—finds its first use in 1992, two years before the short-lived MTV prank show that bore its name.
When Tai declares that Cher is "a virgin who can't drive" in Clueless, Cher shoots back, “That was way harsh, Tai.” The film is such a rich repository of '90s lingo that it receives 74 citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which defines harsh in this context as "very unpleasant, exceptionally rude, ill-mannered, extremely bad."
Though jiggy has been a slang term for nervous energy since the 1890s, it only acquired its connotations of dancing, fun, and sex from one place: Will Smith’s 1997 hit, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Na-na, na, na, na-na-na.
According to Merriam-Webster, judgy also made its appearance in 1997 as a derogatory term meaning "tending to judge others harshly or critically." Strange, because one of the most judgy people on earth, Judith Sheindlin, found '90s success one year earlier with the premiere of Judge Judy.
This portmanteau for a stylish urbanite was coined by Mark Simpson in a 1994 essay. "One sharply dressed ‘metrosexual’ in his early 20s ... has a perfect complexion and precisely gelled hair, and is inspecting a display of costly aftershaves," Simpson wrote. His list of metrosexual must-haves paints a picture of the '90s male: Davidoff aftershave, Paul Smith jackets, corduroy shirts, chinos, and Calvin Klein underwear.
The OED finds examples of the slang use of majorly in the '80s, but it was in the '90s that majorly got majorly big. Consider, once again, Clueless. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the story’s key dramatic moment is the heroine’s realization that she is in love. “It darted through her with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” writes Austen. How does Cher express this sentiment in Clueless ? “I’m majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh!”
No list of '90s slang would be complete without one from the then-newfangled commercial internet. This term for a beginner made its first appearance in 1995, in a Usenet forum devoted to the band Phish. If you didn’t know what ASL stood for on ICQ, you were likely a noob.
An internet newsgroup was also the first place that this term for something distasteful appeared, according to the OED. It was used to describe Freddie Mercury’s pants: "If you were performing in a benefit concert for the lead singer of Queen, ... wouldn't you dress up a little more than skeezy pants and football net-jersey?" A bit judgy, no?
The adjective snarky had been around for a century, but according to Merriam-Webster, the noun snark, meaning “an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm,” didn’t appear until 1999—an apt label for a lot of '90s humor.
12. Spousal Unit
In the '90s you could use this gender-neutral term for your romantic partner (legal or otherwise). The only problem was that in tax law, the spousal unit refers to the couple, not the individual. It wound up on LSSU’s Banished Words List in 1992.
13. Talk to the Hand
According to the OED, this phrase can be used "to express dismissive disregard of, or indifference to, what a person has said or is saying" or "to implore a person to stop speaking." It apparently first popped up as slang at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and as the OED notes, is "typically uttered with a hand outstretched and the palm facing the person addressed." You can also say "talk to the hand, 'cause the face don't understand."
Talk amongst yourselves! I’ll give you a topic: Linda Richman was neither rich, nor a man. Discuss! She was, however, the SNL character played by Mike Myers who popularized this Yiddish word meaning “overcome with emotion” beginning in October 1991.
This term for ostentatious jewelry went mainstream in 1999 when hip-hop artist B.G. scored a Billboard hit with a song called—you guessed it—"Bling Bling." By 2003, the Oxford English Dictionary, always fashionably late to a party, drafted an entry for bling’s inclusion in its next edition. "I knew it would go down in history, but the dictionary—that’s a whole ’nother level," B.G. told the Los Angeles Times that year.
16. Yada, yada, yada
An exclamation originally used to emphasize suddenness or surprise, boo-yah became forever associated with brilliant sports plays, thanks to the late Stuart Scott, an innovative ESPN anchor, who punctuated his commentary with it and many other catchphrases. If you drained a three-pointer, scored a touchdown, or hit a home run in the 1990s, you or a teammate likely shouted "boo-yah!"
Chillax has had a long post-’90s afterlife, but according to the OED, it began in a very ‘90s way: In an online forum discussing the nascent oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino. "Chillax my friend. I agree with most of your sentiments about Tarantino and his use of violence as comedy," someone posted in December 1994, just two months after the release of Pulp Fiction.
Though the heyday of its use in America happened after the 1990s, the term gastropub actually dates to 1991 and was in wide use in the UK throughout the decade. The term aptly describes an eatery combining frou-frou food (gastronomy) with a scuffed-up, neighborhood feel (the pub). That mix of exacting standards and self-conscious insouciance has come to symbolize so much about the way we eat—and live—thanks to the 1990s.
Named "most promising" new word in 1994 by the American Dialect Society, infobahn was one of the many terms coined to describe the internet. It had several virtues to recommend its use: it wasn’t clunky like "information superhighway" and brought to mind Germany’s superbly engineered and super-fast Autobahn road system. But not all good things are meant to last, and after a short moment in the sun, infobahn was overtaken by nicknames like "cyberspace" and "the net."
Saturday Night Live has been a font of jokes, catchphrases, and now memes for nearly half a century. One of its most popular contributions to the way people talked in the '90s was the exclamation "Not!" which debuted in a "Wayne’s World" skit in 1990 and was the American Dialect Society’s “word of the year” in 1992. Adding it to the end of any declaration immediately negates what you just said in the funniest way possible. Not! (Being on the receiving end of a "Not!" was, needless to say, not so funny.)
Much like today, the 1990s were a time when college campus debates about what to study, how to study, and who should do the studying, broke out into the wider world. So too did this cute-sounding, rhyming-compound shorthand for "postmodernism," the seemingly impossible-to-define term for the arts, literature, and social arrangements of the late-20th century and the many theories developed to explain them. Knee-jerk reactions against interpreting the world through a postmodern lens even got a catchy bit of slang all its own: "pomophobia."
23. Regift // Regifter // Regifted
Some slang terms find instant success, while others must wait a while to find their moment. Regift finds its first recorded use, as a noun, 400 years ago during the reign of Elizabeth I. But it was only in 1995 that the term found real popularity thanks to an episode of Seinfeld. The actor who played the "register" in question also found subsequent fame; he was played by a young Bryan Cranston.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines it as an exclamation of "satisfaction, pleasure" and dates its first use to the '90s. Anyone who lived through that decade can attest to its use, though it also appeared on a notorious list of fake slang words published in The New York Times's Style Section under the title "Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code." The list was the invention of the receptionist at a Seattle record label named Megan Jasper who didn’t think the Times would believe her prank list. Other colorful slang of her invention? Wack slacks for "old ripped jeans" and lamestain for "uncool person."
Green’s Dictionary of Slang dates the first use of wicked in a positive sense to the 19th century. But wicked definitely had something of a moment in the 1990s, perhaps in part thanks to its laddish use in movies like 1997’s Good Will Hunting ("My boy’s wicked smart") and TV shows like Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef ("Wicked kebabs," anyone?), which premiered in 1999.
This article has been updated.