9 words that define the 21st century

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The 21st century has seen many huge changes to societies around the world. There are thousands of words that could have made this list, and what we cover is only a tiny portion of our time. Nevertheless, these nine words tell us so much about the age in which we live.

Words, wonderful words. We all use them, but sometimes it’s easy to forget quite how incredible they are. Not only do they allow us to communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings with one another, but by delving into them a little, we can unpick the nuances and changes of our world and its cultures.
Words are one of the most illuminating timelines we have. They allow us to track what people find important, what the dominant concerns of the world were at certain times, and what changes were taking place. Here we’ll look at nine words that define, or otherwise changed the course of, the early 21st century. What will become very clear (if there was any doubt) is that we are very much living in the age of the machine.


21st century words: anthropocene
Perhaps the least-known term on this list, Anthropocene encompasses all the other words here. In fact, it defines the very era in which we live. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Anthropocene as, “the epoch of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth”.
In other words, Anthropocene refers to the age of the human. It will become apparent that almost all the other words on this list refer to digital, artificial human creations—a clear symptom of the Anthropocene!
The idea has been around for centuries, and the word was actually first used in the 1980s. However, Anthropocene did not gain serious traction—as a word or idea—until the early 2000s. Although the word now appears in most dictionaries, it is a controversial hypothesis. There are some serious disagreements about whether we are really in a geological age defined by human actions, and, if we are, when it started.
Some suggest the Anthropocene began 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, when modern humanity seems to have first appeared. It was around then that things like agriculture began. Others suggest that the Industrial Revolution should be its beginning, as this is when we first started truly freeing ourselves from natural forces. However, many suggest that it should be dated around the Second World War, perhaps with the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Not only was this a significant step in our destructive technological capabilities—and marked a new era of technological advancement—but it is highly symbolic, too.


21st century words: Google
Google: once just a noun, now a verb. The search engine giant, which needs no introduction, was launched in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page. They began to develop it in 1996 under the name “back-rub”. Its growth was astonishing. Between launching in 1998 and going public in 2004, it became one of the biggest media companies on the planet.
But when did it enter the common vernacular? Supposedly, it was first used in 1998 by Larry Page himself. However, Google has since attempted to thwart its use as a common verb. Despite some legal attempts, this has been of limited success.
The first recorded use of it, outside of Google, was on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2002, though it is likely this is because of its more general usage in American culture. Over the next few years, it went on to be added to various dictionaries, making it to the OED in 2005. They define it as, “to search for information about (someone or something) on the internet using the search engine Google”. However, in its common usage, using Google is not essential to googling.


21st century words: deep state
This is another term that finally found its way into the dictionary at the turn of the millennium. Although, in one form or another, it has been with us for thousands of years. Notions of secretive, unelected shadows ruling the visible state are nothing new.
Deep state is a calque from the Turkish derin devlet. A calque is a direct, like-for-like translation taken from another language. The OED gives its definition as, “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy”.
The first record of it used in English comes from 1997, but the concept of the deep state long predates this. Within Western popular culture, the idea we have of the deep state first appeared during the Cold War, when the CIA was especially active and, to some degree, acting with independence from the wider state. However, before this, other versions existed. During the Great Depression, the same notion often referred to unaccountable financial powers that had governments in their grips.


21st century words: bromance
This one’s a little lighter, and though most of us already know what it means, it marks an interesting cultural shift. The OED defines a bromance as, “a close but nonsexual relationship between two men”. One for the grammar nerds, bromance is a portmanteau (a blending of two words) made up of “bro” and “romance”.
A bromance is considered to be a heterosexual yet highly intimate relationship between two men. This is known as a homosocial relationship—a platonic one. Despite the lightheartedness of the word, it is taken to be indicative of the changes that Western culture has gone through regarding gender, sexuality, and especially the confines of masculinity.
Its first recorded usage was in the skateboard magazine Big Brother in the 1990s, and is specifically credited to Dave Carnie. However, it did not find popular usage until around 2005, when it wriggled its way into the mainstream media, and thus mainstream culture.
Despite its appearance in Western vernacular, and its symbolising changing attitudes toward male intimacy, do not assume that the phenomenon of a bromance is a Western one. In fact, we are seriously lagging behind. Go to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, to name but a few countries, and you’ll find male friends happily hugging, cuddling, and walking down the street holding hands without any sense of shame or awkwardness. It’s just such a part of their culture that they didn’t need to come up with a new name for it.


21st century words: selfie
One of the most definitive actions and words to pop out of the 21st century, a selfie is far more than just a self-portrait.
People have been taking pictures of themselves since 1839, when Robert Cornelius took one of the first-ever pictures, and self-portraits. Since then, there has been nothing irregular about photographing oneself. In fact, painters have been painting themselves for thousands of years. The first recorded usage of “selfie” appeared in 2002, and is attributed to Australian Nathan Hope.
So, what defines a selfie? The OED defines it as, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”. And this seems to get near the core of it.
A selfie tends not to be taken with a traditional camera, but on a device with broader communicative powers, giving the user the ability to directly upload the picture to the internet. There is something informal about the selfie. Its ease, and the speed of upload, is what defines it. It is the contemporary version of a self-portrait, one that fits into a culture where everything happens immediately.

Yuqo quotesWords are one of the most illuminating timelines we have. They allow us to track what people find important, what the dominant concerns of the world were at certain times, and what changes were taking place.



21st century words: podcast
Another word that is inextricably bound up with the rise of digital culture, and another portmanteau, podcast comes from “iPod” and “broadcast”. The word first appeared in February 2004 when it was coined by Guardian and BBC journalist Ben Hammersley. In October of the same year, Danny Gregoire first adopted it into the audio blogging community.
A podcast is defined as, “a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet”. Interestingly, definitions all seem to focus on the downloadable aspect, although many podcasts are now streamed.
Podcasts themselves appeared in a crude form in the year 2000, when audio and video files were first attached to RSS feeds. Over the next few years, this process was streamlined and formalised, and podcasts became more easily accessible and widespread.
Initially designed for download, the advent of mass streaming caused a massive boom in podcasts. Itunes released a platform to host podcasts in 2005, and within a year, a whole host of radio networks were using it to push their programmes. Since then, many of these networks have gone on to create their own podcast hosting platforms, for example, BBC Sounds.


21st century words: sexting
Verb, to sext. Sexting is another portmanteau of, shockingly, “sex” and “texting”. The Oxford University Press defines it as “the action or practice of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone”.
Though anyone can sext, it is a far more common practice among younger people, especially if it involves the sharing of images or videos. As a fairly new phenomenon, governments around the world are still grappling with how to deal with legality surrounding sexting. Due to many younger people doing it, there are serious considerations around consent. For instance, in Australia, the age of consent for sex is 16, but the age of consent for sexting is 18. There are even cases of teenagers having to sign the sex offenders register for sending and receiving pictures with people their own age.
Back to the word itself. The Australian Telegraph Magazine published the first recorded usage of the word in 2005. Since then, its usage has become more and more widespread.


21st century words: cryptocurrency
Technically, this word actually dates back to 1991. Then, it was used to refer to an informal, decentralised thing that replaced an official currency during times of hyperinflation; the example cited is cigarettes in 1930s Berlin. Since then, it has come to describe decentralised digital currencies that often rely on blockchain technology.
The OED defines it as, “any of various digital payment systems operating independently of a central authority and employing cryptographic techniques to control and verify transactions in a unique unit of account; (also) the units of account of such a system, considered collectively”. Cryptocurrency is also known simply as “crypto”.
The decentralised aspect of cryptocurrency is potentially the most groundbreaking. By not being minted or distributed by a central bank, it is, in theory, a more democratic currency. Likewise, the finite nature of cryptocurrencies means that they should, eventually, behave more like a commodity than a currency, with their value based on rules of supply and demand, rather than manipulation by central banks.
In its current form, the term “cryptocurrency” seems to have been coined by Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin—the first and most famous cryptocurrency.


21st century words: laughing crying emoj
This emoji (and “emoji” could have made it onto this list too) is the most used on major social media platforms, and (even if you don’t like it) is a communicative tool that surely defines our age. Officially called “face with tears of joy”, it is little known by this name.
Emojis owe their creation to Japan, where they have existed in one form or another since the 1990s. Apple added an emoji keyboard to the iPhone for Japanese users only in 2009. It was soon discovered elsewhere that by downloading Japanese apps, a user anywhere in the world could access these emojis. By 2011, Apple added this keyboard to all phones. Since then, emoji usage has surged worldwide.
The face with tears of joy emoji was created by the Unicode Consortium in 2010. However, there are earlier iterations that date back before this. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named it their word of the year, causing significant controversy.
Whatever your take on this emoji, it marks not only an important aspect of modern culture, but a fascinating insight into the malleability of language. It also provides an ability to effectively communicate across normal language barriers.
Language is always in flux, and never more than at this very moment. Whether you embrace or reject these culture-shocking words, they define the time in which we live, and where we’re headed. As the 21st century rages on, what other terms will come to exemplify the modern day?