disco noun earlier than September 1964

Ammon Shea has supplied evidence from December 1963.

Was a disco a dress before it was a nightclub? That’s the surprising implication of the evidence OED researchers have uncovered while revising the entry for disco n. The earliest quotations our editors have found for the word, which is shortened from discotheque, mean ‘a type of short sleeveless dress’ (such as one might wear to a discotheque) and date from July 1964.

1964 Salt Lake Tribune 12 July 4w The ‘disco’ to the fashion-hep means a short, bare-topped dress whose main ingredient is that it must swing.

It isn’t until the September 1964 issue of Playboy that we see disco meaning ‘a nightclub’ (though references to disco dancing are found as early as August):

1964 Playboy Sept. 56/2 Los Angeles has emerged with the biggest and brassiest of the discos.

This evidence all suggests that the word disco emerged in the United States in the summer of 1964.  Can you help us resolve whether the ‘nightclub’ meaning is actually the earliest one? Publications about nightlife in the 1960s might be a good place to start looking.

OED editor Fiona McPherson explains this appeal below:

Posted by OED_Editor on 30 September 2012 19.29
Comments: 31

Tags: ,

  • Hb1616

    Cue -1964,  vol. 33, issues 1-26 , p. 31

    “A cultural current from France brought the discotheque to these shores In recent months. The “disco” is really a glorified jukebox operation, with an attendant choosing the records to suit the mood of the crowd.”

    This seems to be the January issue.

    • OED_Editor

       Thanks! This is a promising lead. If it is the earliest example we receive for this appeal, we will verify the date.

      • At the risk of stating the obvious, isn’t ‘discotheque’ a simple derivation of ‘bibliotheque’?

        • That’s not obvious at all, and the thread is attempting to solilcit concrete evidence to find why this is almost certainly a simplified, popular but erroneous derivation of the word.

          • IVe been looking into this for ages and I still havent been able to find any concrete evidence

  • John Baker

    There seems to have been something of a discotheque boom in 1964 (though most ordinary people had no idea what they were), expressed in both discotheques themselves and the “discotheque dress,” a kind of sleeveless dress that might be worn to a discotheque.  If the discotheque dress was shortened to “disco” before “disclotheque” itself was (though that is undercut by Hb1616’s finding), then that would be only coincidence.

    A slight antedating of “disco dress” is in the Oakland Tribune for July 9, 1964, page 65.

  • Rose Wild

    The Times archive has two stories, from 1926 and 1927, about a new ball game called “Disco”, a sort of mixture of tennis and badminton designed to be suitable for small gardens. There’s also a report about the Discotheque Club, from 1964, after an MP described it as “the nerve centre of the purple heart racket” and a court case featuring the German doorman, who worked for Rachman. In August 1964, there was a personal ad: “Robert Morrison is searching for the right young man to join his Travelling Discotheque Service in a part-time capacity as disc jockey”

  • OED_Editor

     Thanks for your recollection. It does seem likely that the word was in use in the UK at that time.

  • PeterE

    Wikipedia has this to say :- (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disco#History)
    The term “discothèque” was coined in Europe to describe clubs where there was no live music played (a.k.a. disk-only events). In Occupied France, jazz and bebop music plus the jitterbug were banned by the Nazis as decadent American influences, so members of the Resistance met at hidden underground dance clubs called discotheques (fr. record collection) where they danced to American swing music, which a DJ played on a single turntable when a jukebox was not available. These “discotheques” were also patronized by anti-Vichy youth called ‘zazou’ who much like the kids in the USA during the 1940s were wearing zoot suits There were also underground discotheques in Nazi Germany patronized by anti-Nazi youth called the swing kids. Jimmy Saville played records of big band music in dance halls in Leeds, England, during World War Two.

  • Vivian Hankey1

    before a disco was known as a disco the name that was given to the person that was in charge of the record player at a dance hall or club was a ( discographer ) and this was shortend into ( disco as the name of the place or the name of the happening whether it be in a club or a dance hall ) that was before the term of ( disc jocky ) came into being for the person that was seen to be playing the disc’s with the recordings on them ( which in turn was shortend from ) ( recording disc ” which was the name that was given it before the recording disc’s became know simply as 78s,45s 35, or LPs))  

  • Gbartlett87

    I heard that discotheque comes from ‘Disc only’ meaning records (discs) are played instead of live bands

  • GarsonOToole

    Here is a citation in March of 1964. The Cue cite might be earlier.

    Cite: 1964 March 10, Marietta Journal, Hollywood Reporter by Mike Connolly, Page 6, Column 3, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)

    [Begin excerpt]
    CIRO’S, once the swingin’est spot In Smogville-on-the-
    Pacific, reopens this spring with a new gimmick. It will have
    glass booths suspended from the ceiling with a staff of skimp-
    ily-clad starlet-type disco jockeys dancing the Watusi inside
    while they spin those records.
    [End excerpt]

  • GarsonOToole

    Here is a citation in June if the March cite is unacceptable
    for some reason.


    Cite: 1964 June 21, Washington Post, Little Black Dress Gets
    New Swing: Discotheque Is Fashion’s Inspiration by Ruth Wagner, Page F1,
    Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)


    [Begin excerpt]

    The our sketches were made at Washington’s own disco, Whisky
    a Gogo, at M st. and Wisconsin ave. in Georgetown.

    [End excerpt]

  • Benjamin

    Jimmy Saville invented the “ones and twos” (DJ decks) and the first “Disc Only” Night, in Leeds.

    This clip is short and to the point, but the recent BBC documentary goes into more detail, dates etc, from the man himself. 

  • I had heard that Jimmy Saville coined the phrase “Disc Only” when he opened a nightclub in Manchester in the 60’s – meaning there was no live band, but Disc only – shortened to “Disco”…

  • Richard Carpenter

    Just as a bibliothèque is a library of books, a discothèque is a library of discs, see derived terms

  • V Hannah

    I was at Liverpool Art school from September 1963  to June 1965.  In April 1964, my group of Fashion students visited, among other places, Milan.  I had never heard of a disco before this, but a student at the University of MIlan took me to a venue where records were played for dancing. I had never heard of a disco until this, as in the UK, all bands were live.  It was very romantic!

  • dieseltaylor

    In 1935, American radio commentator Walter Winchell coined the term “disc jockey” (the combination of disc, referring to the disc records, and jockey, which is an operator of a machine) as a description of radio announcer Martin Block, the first announcer to become a star. While his audience was awaiting developments in the Lindbergh kidnapping, Block played records and created the illusion that he was broadcasting from a ballroom, with the nation’s top dance bands performing live. The show, which he called Make Believe Ballroom, was an instant hit. The term “disc jockey” appeared in print in Variety in 1941.[5]

     Prior to this, most music heard on radio was live; most radio stations had an orchestra or band on the payroll.[6][7] The Federal Communications Commission also clearly favored live music, providing accelerated license approval to stations promising not to use any recordings for their first three years on the air.[5] Many noted recording artists tried to keep their recorded works off the air by having their records labeled as not being legal for airplay. It took a Federal court ruling in 1940 to establish that a recording artist had no legal right to control the use of a record after it was sold.[5]

    In 1943, Jimmy Savile launched the world’s first DJ dance party by playing jazz records in the upstairs function room of the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds in Otley, England. In 1947, he claims to have become the first DJ to use twin turntables for continuous play, and in 1958 became a radio DJ at Radio Luxembourg. Also in 1947, the Whiskey à Go-Go nightclub opened in Paris, France, considered to be the world’s first commercial discothèque, or disco (deriving its name from the French word meaning a nightclub where the featured entertainment is recorded music rather than an on-stage band). Regine began playing on twin turntables there in 1953. Discos began appearing across Europe and the United States.

    The French derivation sounds right to me but I lack the linquistic skill to search.

  • The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday,
    May 10, 1964; pg. 42[S]; Issue 7356. (1375 words)
    Category: Feature Articles
    “in company with a sparkling and catholic cast that would delight a discotheque hostess”

    also, not sure if this would count but:

    The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday,
    September 23, 1962; pg. 2; Issue 7271. (268 words)

    Category: Display Advertising

    Disotheque is listed as a London club you can join along with Flamingo Jazz etc.

  • Sarah

    My understanding was that ‘disco’ comes from the term ‘disk only’, I belive coined by Jimmy Saville. Dance halls used to have live bands playing with maybe records used here and there. I believe in the 50s, ‘disk only’ nights began to appear, intoducing the concept of the ‘DJ’ to dance halls.

  • James Foreman68

    I thought disco came from the nights jimmy saville held that were” disc only” nights as opposed to having a live band as well as discs being played. This then got abbreviated to disco

  • Robin Bailey

    A club where you danced was called a discotheque (a record library, bibliotheque with disco instead of biblio). This was shortened to disco a long time ago.  Isn’t there anybody over 60 at the OED? I used to think you all were, but I was obviously mistaken.

    • OED_Editor

      Thanks for your comment. Actually, the OED entry states that the word is shortened from ‘discotheque’. We are trying to track down the earliest evidence of the word. Currently, our first verifiable example is from 1964.

  • OED_Editor

     Yes, we are seeking the first documentary evidence of the shortened form ‘disco’. Thanks!

    • A Drabble

       I don’t remember ‘disco’ being used before the advent of the mobile disco in the 70’s

  • A Drabble

    I have posted a link on the PLASA Facebook page (Professional Light & Sound Assoc.) Watch this space!

    • A Drabble

      60’s until then it was the full name discotheque which was in common
      use in London in the arly 60’s and originally from wartime Paris when
      discotheques were bard that played records as all the musicians were in
      the army or dead or evacuated. From Theo Loyla, late of Polydor Records.

  • ammonshea

    There appears to be an article from the Los Angeles Sentinel from 26 Dec., 1963, with the headline  ‘Disco Club First For West Coast’. 

    • OED_Editor

       Thank you. We’ve uploaded the image here, from page 12A, as it gives some interesting background.

      • ammonshea

        There’s a slightly earlier use, although it may not be helpful, from the Cleveland Call and Post, 14 Dec., 1963, 4b/2 – This week, they are presenting a mammoth 12-hour show at the Shrine Exposition Hall featuring famous stars, and emceed by favorite L.A. disco jockeys.

  • The September 28, 1946 edition of “The Billboard” makes reference to a recording company named “Disco.”  Here is a link to it in Google Books:  http://books.google.com/books?id=LRoEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT35&lpg=PT35&dq=disco&source=bl&ots=nRsj8wAmFM&sig=BvI3N14heSrcXPw2Ews8lVVQslg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=GcKBUPDpEsPc2gWssoEw&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBTgU