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When Americans first started saying “weekend,” “unemployment,” and “okay”

"Garage" and "parking" both showed up in American English around the turn of the 20th century and have stuck around ever since. "Almah" — a word for a dancing girl or prostitute — vanished after a brief heydey in the early 19th century.

Those are some of the lessons from this chart from David Taylor at Prooffreader.com, which shows words that overwhelmingly appear in some decades and not in others:

David Taylor, Prooffreader.com

The data comes from the Corpus of Historical American English, which includes 400 million words of American texts dating back to 1810.

Some of these seem obvious. Of course people weren't talking about telephones or automobiles before they were invented, or about baseball and basketball before those sports became widely popular.

But this isn't just a chart about language. It's a chart about how society evolved during and after the Industrial Revolution, and how language adapts to reflect new ideas and changes in the way we live.

Many of the words refer to new inventions: video, telephone, radio, computers, and so on. "Computer" at first referred to a person who did computation by hand, and then to a type of adding machine, before taking on its modern meaning.

Other words on the list show how the world of work has changed. Words like "weekend," "unemployment," "scheduled," "output," "techniques," and "skills" don't seem particularly modern. But they reflect a profound shift toward modern society. They all entered the language in the late 19th century and early 20th century, as work and society were becoming more structured, urban, standardized, and professionalized. Railroads created the need for standardized timekeeping. The five-day workweek was emerging. So was the modern job — stable employment in an organized workplace hierarchy.

New words show how all the new inventions reflected on the chart — telephones and radio that let people speak over long distances, televisions and video that showed them pictures from far away, airlines and airports that made long-distance travel more feasible — led to a more interconnected world, a sense of the earth as a planet. "Global" and its opposite, "regional," are 20th-century concepts. You also see the rise of international enemies — "Nazi" first appears in the 1910s, but searching the corpus reveals it's usually a misprint or a proper name; it doesn't show up in force until the 1930s. The same is true of "Soviet," which shows up on the chart in the late 19th century in entries that are mostly miscategorized. It's not used in the sense of Soviet Russia until the 1910s.

And finally, the chart portrays a society that's more accepting of vulgarity than it used to be. "Fuck" shows up in print mostly in the second half of the 20th century, but it dates back to the 16th century. It just didn't appear in writing very much until the 1960s. Like other words on this list, it doesn't represent a shift in language so much as a shift in society: changes either in how we behave or in how we talk about it.


Watch: 220 years of population migration

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