New words of 1986

I recently came across Longman Guardian New Words, by Simon Mort (1986). It gives a fascinating interesting snapshot of words that entered mainstream British English in 1986.

The author says the book has 3 aims:

  • to entertain
  • to provide a convenient reference package of the patterns, logic and fashion of word formation of 1986
  • to be a companion for someone meeting unfamiliar words in a newspaper and not finding them in a general dictionary.

The book covers words that entered common usage in British English over about 12 months towards the end of 1986 (even if previously used by more specialised groups). In an aside, Mort muses whether the lexicographical year is a period that ends early enough for a book intended to reach the Christmas market.

The author included words he judged likely to persist. The author noted that judging whether words had actually endured was only for readers of the 1990s. Well, I’m having a quick look now, some 30 years later than that.

The list is on 219 pages, with about 4 or 5 words on most pages, so around 800 in total. Here are a few that caught my eye

Topical concerns of the day

Some of the words clearly reflect topical concerns of the day arising from news stories. Examples include:

  • glasnost (but not perestroika, its common twin from the Gorbachev era)
  • community charge (‘a tax of a fixed amount per person levied on adults; a poll tax’) This was a highly controversial tax to finance local government, replacing a previous system based on property values. Community charge was the official name. Poll tax, an unofficial name adopted by protesters, rapidly replaced the official name throughout the print and broadcast news media.
  • Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), prominent in news stories of the time because of contamination of human growth hormone used medicinally
  • junk bond (a high-yield speculative security, especially one issued to finance a takeover). This financial term is still in use, though perhaps less prominently than back in 1986. On the other hand, index fund and passive manager [of investments] are probably now even more widely used now than in 1986.
  • HIV and retrovirus (but not AIDS, a word which presumably came into the mainstream a year or two earlier)
  • Lindow man (an iron age Briton, apparently victim of a ritual killing, found in Lindow Moss, Cheshire). Found in a peat bog, so popularly known as Pete Marsh.
  • desmond: student slang for a lower second class degree (2:2) in British universities or polytechnics. From the name of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was prominent in news coverage of South Africa at the time.

One word already betrays fears about how EU regulation might affect the UK. The term vegelate was coined in the EU parliament to refer to British chocolate. At the time, the European Union banned this because it contained vegetable fats but might be permitted in the future if not called chocolate.

Were these words really new?

It surprised me how late some terms arrived:

  • Did fraudster really enter common as late as 1986?
  • Banana skin (something that causes a humiliating accident or misadventure—especially in political contexts). The author comments that the metaphorical use of banana skin had been amply documented since the start of the 20th century, but argues that the ‘sometimes inept defensive tactics’ of the then UK government had given it a specific and frequent new meaning.
  • Concert party (‘a group of people or companies acting together, especially in a financial enterprise’). I remember learning this word in 1983 when I was doing accountancy exams. There was a law that regulated specified share transactions by a single person, or by a group of people acting together in concert. Concert party had become shorthand for such a group, by analogy to the groups of performers that entertained troops during the 2nd world war.

Incidentally, in the book’s definition of concert party, enterprise means an activity, but nowadays it often refers to an entity (a company or an unincorporated business), under the influence, I suspect, of EU English and French entreprise and German Unternehmen.


Astonishingly, penne appears on the list. Was this type of pasta really so late entering the mainstream in the UK?

Mexican food must have just started to become well known. It features with burrito, jalapeno, nacho, quesadilla and taco. The book records a related term (no longer in use?) for a concept still familiar in recent years: Tortilla curtain, referring to a fence along parts of the US-Mexican border, designed to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants.

Terms for several exotic fruit are, to my mind, still not mainstream: Asian pear, carambola (also known—and surely better-known—as star fruit), chayote (also called chocho or christophene), Sharon fruit, tangor (cross between tangerine and orange; smaller ones known as Topaz Jaffarines), Tientsin pear.

Computer terms

Computer terms that are still well known include computer virus, desktop, laptop, email, hack (and hacker), icon, keypad, mouse, pixel.

Menu-driven is also included, because making life easier for users by providing menus was then still a novelty. The book does not include user-friendly (presumably because this term was already widespread earlier), but it does discuss the competing merits of 2 antonyms: user-unfriendly and user-hostile.

The book also includes -friendly as a suffix (with examples audience-friendly , customer-friendly , environment-friendly , farmer-friendly, girl friendly, Labour-friendly , nature-friendly , newspaper-friendly; it writes ‘girl friendly’ without a hyphen, but maybe that is because the example they cite uses the phrase predicatively, not attributively: ‘make the physical sciences more ‘girl friendly’)

For something many of us have become more familiar with in the last couple of words, the book includes teleport: an area (eg in a house) where a computer is kept and used for teleworking. The concept may be familiar but I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing the word before. The book also includes teleworking and telecommuting.


The books records new common use of some environmental terms that are still in wide use, such as windfarm and renewable energy, as will as the still popular ethical, as in ethical investment.


Pinyin is the official transliteration system for writing Mandarin in the roman alphabet. The words is in the book though it seems unlikely that this word ever came into common use among the media and public.

Words that didn’t catch on

Inevitably, the book records many words that failed to catch on because, for example they referred to particular technologies, brands or political developments that proved short-lived or parochial.

Some other terms didn’t last but maybe deserved to do so:

  • branwagon (an increasing trend towards eating bran, fresh vegetables and other foods considered healthy, blend formation from bran and bandwagon)
  • debtnocrat (official of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or similar institution, dealing with international debts; by analogy with technocrat)
  • cordon vert (skilled vegetarian cookery, by analogy with cordon bleu)
  • vegucate (to teach about cooking vegetarian meals)
  • Newzak (filmed news coverage whose original impact and significance are so dulled by repetition that the images become merely decorative, by analogy to muzak)

Another word that never caught on was jarming: exercising with the arms (by analogy with jogging)

Recent words that were too old

The introduction lists some words excluded because, although they were recently prominent, they related directly to a particular event or identifiable vogue before 1986: AIDS, break-dancing, dioxin, dungeons and dragons, in vitro, massaging (of statistics), mole (‘popularized by the televising of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’), rate-cap, sell-off, SERPS, SDI (and its ‘crassly inaccurate popularization’ star wars).

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