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Words at Play

How Is "Goth" 1,000 Years Old?

Top 10 Words of the '90s


This word contains over a thousand years of drama. In brief:

Around the fifth century, the Goths were a tribe that helped defeat the Roman Empire; by the 1500s, gothic meant "barbaric" and was used to insult a new style of architecture; that architecture became associated with the medieval age; ideas of medieval darkness and mystery inspired gothic fiction of the 1800s like Dracula.

All this eventually led, in the 1990s, to goth fashion - characterized by vampire-ish black clothes and eyeliner, and a preference for dark music and moody Romanticism.

Officially referred to as "annoyed grunt" in The Simpsons scripts, Homer Simpson's signature interjection became a catchphrase of the decade (and later an audio trademark of Twentieth Century Fox).

Merriam-Webster thoughtfully defined it this way: "-used to express sudden recognition of a foolish blunder or an ironic turn of events."

Positive word? Negative word? In many ways, both.

Although globalization dates back to the 50s, it went into overdrive in the 90s - representing not just the excitement and opportunities of an electronically connected global village, but also the conflict between multinational companies and local interests.

Punk rock mixed with heavy metal: a defining sound of the decade.

With the Seattle band Nirvana (and its 1991 album Nevermind) leading the way, grunge bands filled the 90s with distorted guitars and angst-filled lyrics.

The word comes from grungy, meaning "dirty," but the outsider look - flannel shirts, knit caps, ripped jeans - was adopted by high-end designers and mainstream retailers.

It so happens that the Left invented this phrase: it entered Communist lingo in the 1930s to praise loyalty to the party line.

But eventually politically correct turned against them.

By the 90s, it was used mainly by the Right - as a kind of battle cry of the Culture Wars.

Here's President George H. W. Bush, in a 1991 commencement speech at the University of Michigan:

"The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits."

In the second half of the decade, these slim shiny objects slipped easily into our lives.

The inventors never really decided whether the acronym stands for "digital video disc" or - to cover more than just video - "digital versatile disc."

Either way, DVDs pushed clunky old VHS tapes off movie rental shelves (remember those stores?) and introduced an important new revenue stream to Hollywood.

You know who you are (and you can still hum the Brady Bunch theme).

This term was initially used to describe British teens, first in the 1950s and again in the 1960s.

But finally - after Douglas Coupland's 1991 best seller Generation X - it stuck with North Americans, born in the 1960s and 70s, who grew up in the shadow of the baby boomers.

The digital revolution uploaded a huge batch of new terms into the language: Internet, the Web, spyware, MP3, the prefix e-, etc.

Dot-com evokes memories of the 90s: startups boomed in the decade's stock market bubble - then went bust in the collapse that followed.

These days, successful online ventures simply call themselves businesses.

"All told, genetic technology will give humankind an almost godlike power to improve its condition." -From a 1992 Time article about The Human Genome Project, a massive international collaboration to fully understand human DNA.

As a result of that project, which ran from 1990 to 2003, this decade saw unprecedented popular interest in what makes us who we are - our genetic material, or genome.

Virtual Reality
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Would You "Complisult" A Frenemy?

Video games with head-mounted displays. Highly sophisticated simulation training for the military. In the 90s virtual reality became, well, more real - more science, less sci-fi.

That said, sci-fi continued to express the dream nicely, particularly in one of the decade's defining films:

"If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." - Morpheus, in The Matrix




Seen and Heard