The Grammarphobia Blog

On teens and teenagers

Q: In his 1910 novel Daisy’s Aunt, E. F. Benson writes that Daisy’s parents died “when she was quite young, and not yet halfway through the momentous teens.” I’m shocked that people were using “teens” so long ago.

A: Prepare yourself for another shock. People have been using “teens” for the teenage years since the mid-1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And here’s one more shocker. The OED has a British citation from the  early 1800s for “teens” used to mean teenagers—more than a century before the word “teenager” showed up in American English.

The OED defines the “teens” as the “years of the life of any person (rarely, of the age of anything) of which the numbers end in -teen, i.e. from thirteen to nineteen; chiefly in phrases in, out of one’s teens.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Cheats, a 1664 comedy by the English playwright John Wilson: How often have I told you, she was in her Teenes?”

The first Oxford citation for “teen” used to mean an adolescent is from the title of an 1818 guidebook by Isaac Taylor, an English clergyman: “Advice to the Teens; or, Practical Helps to the Formation of Character.”

Despite this early and apparently rare British example, the dictionary says the use of “teen” for a “young person in the teens” is “now chiefly N. Amer. and apprehended as short for teenager.”

The earliest American citation is from the July 30, 1951, issue of the Deseret News (Salt Lake City): “Doing something fun like redecorating your room … is really interesting biz for a teen who loves being busy.

The noun “teenager” showed up (with a hyphen) in the early 1940s, according to OED citations. The first example is from the April 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly: “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious.”

The adjective “teenage” showed up two decades earlier. The first Oxford citation is from the March 11, 1921, issue of the Daily Colonist (Victoria, BC):

“All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective “teenaged” is from a 1953 entry in The American Thesaurus of Slang (1954), by L. V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “The teenaged set … a teenaged person.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation for “teenager” from a section on American advertising in The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), a poem by W. H. Auden:

Definitely different. Has that democratic
Extra elegance. Easy to clean.
Will gladden grand-dad and your girl friend.
Lasts a lifetime. Leaves no odor.
American made. A modem product
Of nerve and know-how with a new thrill.
Patriotic to own. Is on its way
In a patent package. Pays to investigate.
Serves through science. Has something added
By skilled Scotchmen. Exclusively used
By upper classmen and Uncle Sam.
Tops in tests by teenagers.
Just ask for it always.

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