Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Where does the word television come from? Twentieth-century words: the first quinquennium.

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A 1900 word that had to wait over 25 years to be instantiated. (Yup, that’s a word too — from 1949.)

A few days ago, I started a daily tweet with two, or occasionally three, words per year for every year of the twentieth century, starting in 1900. I tweet them with their first citation from the OED, which is the source I extracted them from/from which I extracted them [strike through according to taste].

I can hardly claim that this is a unique or novel approach, but it is fun and illuminating in several different ways. You never know what you will find until you find it, if you see what I mean. A bit like online dating — or so they tell me — but without the risk.

What I will do here is list the pairs or triplets of words selected for 1900-1904; provide more information about one of them, namely the gogglebox; and mention others that I didn’t tweet about.

(The full list of my entirely subjective selection is at the end.)

Selecting according to how often the words are used

For any given year, the OED records hundreds of “new words”. For instance, for 1900 there are 686. (That is, extracting “headwords”, rather than “lemmas” or “meanings”.)

How to choose?

They come ordered alphabetically – Hello! The OED is a dictionary — which means that the first one for 1900 is abiologic = abiological – hardly a vocable to set this word buff’s pulses racing.

I had to find a quick and dirty way of identifying potentially interesting ones. The OED rescued me: it helpfully indicates how often a word is used nowadays by means of a series of eight frequency bands, full details of which you can see here.
Sorting words for 1900 by current frequency banishes the worthy but boring abiologic and enthrones…television.

“What!” I hear you say. “TV hadn’t been invented back then.” Correct, it hadn’t. But something/someone does not necessarily have to exist just because there is a word or phrase for them (think unicorns, phlogiston, Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Philosopher’s Stone, basilisks, Aphrodite, mirages, and, probably, God, to name just a few).

Smog: first named and shamed in 1905. The Big Apple looking very mysterious and Whistlerian.

Reality imitates language

The divine Oscar paradoxed that “Life imitates art more than Art imitates life.”

It is similarly true that Reality sometimes imitates, or at least catches up with, Language, particularly the language of science and science fiction. H.G. Wells’s coined atomic bomb in 1914, decades before it became reality. Television also nicely illustrates this same phenomenon.

The first 1900 citation speculates excitedly and futuristically. It is from the June issue of The Century Magazine, an illustrated monthly US publication started in 1881 that lasted nearly half a century. The second is from The Electrician, which, no, is not yer average sparky, but an august and earnest London publication billed by Wikipedia as “the earliest and foremost electrical engineering and scientific journal”, and published for nigh on a hundred years.

Through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face.


(One day it will finally dawn on inveterate texting addicts that you can actually SPEAK face to face on a mobie)

At the afternoon sitting on Friday, M. C. Perskyi read a communication on ‘Television’, describing a number of apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium.
31 Sept. 822/2

The OED revised (3rd edn) definition for television goes as follows: “A system used for transmitting and viewing images and (typically) sound; the action of transmitting and viewing images using such a system (now rare). In later use: esp. such a system used for the organized broadcast of professionally produced shows and programmes.”

The Electrician citation presumably refers to “the action of …” mentioned in that definition.

Yes, but what about how the word was coined?

As the OED puts it, “Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: tele comb. form, vision n.”

That “combining form” tele– is probably otherwise best known from telephone, and is from Classical Greek τηλε-, meaning “far”. Television, therefore, could be interpreted as “far seeing”, (which is how German deals with it in Fernsehen). French had an influence: according to the OED, some of the earliest tele– words were created in French, and, it seems, that what Mr Perskyi had in mind in his “communication” noted above was the Gallic télévision.

“Meanwhile”, Modern Greek calques, possibly English, by repossessing the Classical τηλε- element and adding to it the word for “vision, sight”, όραση, to produce τηλeόραση [tī-le-O-ra-sī].

Why did I choose the words?

Having sorted by frequency, I then looked at the first 100 or so for each year. Thereafter, it was whim, dear lady, pure whim. Yeah, no, seriously, my criteria were:
• Does the word have some currency or resonance now? (single currency, racism)
• Did it historically? (suffragette)
• Has it some cultural heritage/baggage/clout/oomph, etc? [“Cultural” in its widest sense] (Dubliner, psychoanalysis)
• Is it so much part of everyday language that it might be difficult to conceive of its ever having been “invented”? (trivia, hormone)
• Was it a (major) discovery/invention? (radio, escalator, chemotherapy)
• Wow! Was it really coined that long ago? (re-evaluate, packaged, Ms., sportswear, eatery)
• Wow! You mean it didn’t exist before! No way! (Dubliner again)
• Did sex come into it? [I’m only human – allegedly – after all.] (voyeur, Tantric)
• Was/is it slangy?


This stands for “airport”. I’m old enough for TWA to mean something, a bit like BOAC. Both “initialisms”, technically, btw.

Come to think of it, those are post hoc justifications [NB: Latin phrases never hyphenated] , and “whim” is about right. My method is evolving as I go along, while the number of words I list per year before selecting my lucky pair (emboldened below) also varies. For what they’re worth, here are my shortlists.

A couple of words of caution. First word: these earliest citations sometimes refer to a meaning that is not the main current meaning. Second word: some of these entries have not been revised by the OED. It is therefore possible that, when they finally are, an earlier “first date” might be found.

single currency
come-hither look
Bramley apple

• noble gas
• chink (i.e. Chinese)

• suitcase
• paranoid
• audio-visual
• limousine
number two(s)
• skoda
• terrazzo

• basically
• radio
• clone
• landfill
man on the Clapham omnibus
• to neuter
• sportswear
• Pepsi-Cola
• fandom

Could this be the elusive “Man on the Clapham omnibus”. To me, he looks more like a toff from a first-class train, but never judge a book, etc. I can remember my father wearing a bowler hat to work (and some clothes, as well).

comic book
• back-track
• meaningfulness
• chiropractor
• preadolescent
• paedophile
• speedometer
• hip


Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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