1999 Words of the Year, Word of the 1990s, Word of the 20th Century, Word of the Millennium

The American Dialect Society words of the year, decade, century, and millennium chosen in January 2000 need no introduction. But they could use an explanation.

Word of the Year 1999 was Y2K.

Word of the 1990s Decade was web.

Word of the Twentieth Century was jazz.

Word of the Past Millennium was she.

Yes, she, the feminine pronoun. Before the year 1000, there was no she in English; just heo, which singular females had to share with plurals of all genders because it meant they as well. In the twelfth century, however, she appeared, and she has been with us ever since. She may derive from the Old English feminine demonstrative pronoun seo or sio, or from Viking invasions.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains:

“The phonetic development of various dialects had in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rendered the pronouns he (masc.) and heo (fem.) almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation. There was therefore, where these dialects were spoken, a strong motive for using the unambiguous feminine demonstrative instead of the feminine personal pronoun. Further, the districts in which she or sho first appears in the place of heo are marked by the abundance of Scandinavian elements in the dialect and place-names; and in Old Norse the demonstrative pronoun (of all genders) is often used as a personal pronoun.”

By a runoff vote of 35 to 27, she edged out science as Word of the Millennium.

The words were chosen at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago on January 7, 2000, during the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. About 70 members and friends of the Society were present to discuss and vote on nominees selected earlier in the day.

Voting began with Words of the Year 1999. These words were chosen in particular categories, with approximate votes for each:

Most Useful: dot-com, a company operating on the Web. Other nominees: Y2K (28), fatigue (0) as in millennium fatigue, Clinton fatigue.

Most Unnecessary: milly (28), dance for the millennium commissioned by the city of Chicago. Others: compassionate conservative (28), political label of Presidential candidate George W. Bush; birdosaur (22), a flying dinosaur; millennium fatigue (4).

Most Likely to Succeed: dot-com (31) company doing business on the World-Wide Web. Others: portal (9) entry site to the Web, e-tail (7) retail business conducted on the Web, baby Bills (2) companies that Bill Gates’ Microsoft might be broken up into as a result of the government’s antitrust lawsuit.

Most Outrageous: humanitarian intervention, (29) military force used for humanitarian purposes. Others: denim defense (16) victim’s wearing of tight jeans, which require victim’s cooperation in removing, as defense against a rape charge; compassionate conservative (12); Acela (1), Amtrak trademark for new service.

Most Original: cybersquat, (32) to register a Web address intending to sell it at a profit. Others: HMO+ (21) covered by a bad health maintenance organization, analogous to HIV positive; coffee-zilla (3) very strong coffee; logobeef (3), student slang for something thrown over a high balcony.

Most Euphemistic: compassionate conservative(28). Others: Your call is very important to us (22) answering machine message, humanitarian intervention (13), possum-rider (3) student slang for person indiscriminate with sexual partners, m’kay (2) South Park movie substitute for F-word.

Brand New (not attested in previous years): Pokémania, (33) obsession with Pokémon. Others: mousetrapping (19) blocking exit from a Website, trench coat mafia (0) purported clique of students at Columbine High School, Colorado.

It took only one vote to choose Y2K as Word of the Year. Of the final nominees, Y2K got 55 votes, dot-com (5), cybersquat (2), and Pokémania (0).

For Word of the Decade, web received 45 votes, the prefix e- 10, way meaning yes (4), the prefix Franken meaning genetically modified as in Frankenfood (2), ethnic cleansing (0) and senior moment (0).

For Word of the Century, jazz got 50 votes to about 12 for runner-up DNA. Also in the running were the slang cool (10), media (9), T-shirt (7), teenager (6), acronym (4), teddy bear (3), World War (2) and melting pot (0).

For Word of the Millennium, other candidates were the article the (16), OK (13), freedom (7), book (4), human (3), justice (1), truth (1), language (1), government (1), news (0), nature (0), history (0) and go (0).