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A Word, Please: Axion, buppie and other words that haven’t survived the test of time

A young lettuce plant will grow into a crisphead.
A young lettuce plant will grow into a crisphead, though few people will call it that, according to grammar columnist June Casagrande.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The people who make dictionaries have a tough job. The hardest part: figuring out which new words have gained enough of a foothold in the language to earn a place in the dictionary.

It’s hard because they’re not calling the shots. You are. Lexicographers spend all day looking for new words and new ways people are using old words. They search different “corpora,” or language databases, to see how often the terms show up. Then they try to gauge whether the word has become entrenched enough to warrant a spot in the dictionary.

Often, they get it right. Other times, words don’t have quite the staying power lexicographers anticipated. Here are a few dictionary additions that flopped.

Crisphead (1966): In a year when “acidhead,” “blitzed,” “quaalude,” “druggie,” “headshop,” “meth” and “mind-blowing” first made their way into Merriam-Webster’s, “crisphead” probably sounded like a groovy new addition to the English language. But did we really need another word for iceberg lettuce? Apparently not. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer tool, which counts how often words appear in books, “crisphead” peaked (if you will) in the late 1980s and its use is down about 85% since that time.

Hahnium (1970): Four years later, it seems that the English language had come down from its trip. “Clonazepam,” “clotrimazole,” “clozapine,” “cognitive therapy” and “comorbid,” along with “medicalize,” “miconazole,” “microaggression,” “obesogenic” and “T cell,” took their places in the dictionary to reflect the language’s weighty new sense of sobriety. Also in Merriam’s class of 1970 was a new synonym for dubnium, a short-lived radioactive element that apparently didn’t need another name. “Hahnium,” a word for dubnium, grew in popularity for a while but plummeted in the 1990s.

The region known as Southern California is in the southwest corner of the contiguous United States, but it’s not part of the Southwest.

Axion (1978): By the late ’70s, science was still making a splash in Americans’ speech. “Bioenergy,” “bitmapped,” “campylobacteriosis,” “free-electron laser,” “gene-splicing” “information technology” and “nanostructure” took places in Merriam-Webster’s. But not every scientific concept had staying power. “Axion,” meaning “a hypothetical subatomic particle of low mass and energy that is postulated to exist because of certain properties of the strong force,” hit peak popularity in 1988, then crashed 76% by 2019.

Buppie: (1986): Hey, remember the ’80s — a time when people thought that jeans should be washed in acid and that Eddie Murphy was a singer? Shallowness and self-indulgence came roaring back, bringing dictionary entries like “golden parachute,” “infomercial” and “crony capitalism” (1981) and “blush wine,” “spendy” and “horndog” (1984), followed by “stress ball,” “stair-stepper” and “unibrow” (1988). But unlike the 1981 hit “yuppie,” the 1984 follow-up, “buppie,” meaning a yuppie who was also Black, didn’t take off in the language, showing up just 1% as often as “yuppie” at its peak.

Digerati (1992): Think the ’90s were just “meh”? In fact, the decade’s new words show this was a far more transformative time than your Macarena memories suggest. “Augmented reality,” “hacktivism,” “EVOO” (for extra virgin olive oil),” “cytokine storm” and “meh” itself, which were all added in 1992, seem downright prescient today. Even the 1991 “zoodle,” meaning a zucchini noodle, keeps getting more popular every year. Back then, it must have seemed a safe bet that “digerati” had a bright future. But no, this noun meaning a person well versed in computers, peaked in popularity right before the turn of the century, at which point it fell off a cliff.

The new millennium: A lot of words have been added since the year 2000 and there’s no telling which ones will fade into obscurity. “Bromance” and “twerking” (2001), “borked” (2002), “sapiosexual” (2004), “copypasta” (2006), “fatberg” (2008), “jegging” (2009), “escape room” (2012), “manspreading” (2014) and “non-fungible token” (2017) all seem headed for the chopping block. But only time will tell.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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