Words from the 1950s

Words from the 1950s

In the nineteen-fifties, the culture of youth came of age. It had been bubbling up in the United States in the nineteen-forties – the era of bobby sox (ankle socks worn by teenage girls; 1943) and bobby-soxers (adolescent female fans; 1944), of zoot suits (with long jackets and tapering trousers; 1942) and crew-cuts (closely cropped male haircuts; 1942), which saw the birth, so to speak, of the teenager (the term predates World War I, but was only after World War II taking on its current resonance). But now, as post-war consumer confidence began to return, fuelled by the powerhouse of the US economy, the young asserted their prominent place in society on both sides of the Atlantic.

No more being seen but not heard. Indeed, music was a key element in the new youth culture – notably, of course, rock ‘n’ roll (1955), but in Britain, skiffle (1957) was also a favourite. In the affluent 50s, the kids could also afford their own record players (an American coinage of the second decade of the 20th century, but still fighting it out against gramophone in Britain), and their money propelled songs into the hit parade (1958), the top ten (1958), top of the pops (1956).

It was the era of the beat generation (Jack Kerouac’s term for a movement of young people who rejected the established social norms; 1952), the angry young man (one at odds with prevailing beliefs and conventions; the term became attached to the British playwright John Osborne in 1957), and the crazy mixed-up kid (1955), of the kitchen sink (symbolic of domestic squalor portrayed by artists and writers; 1954) and the coffee bar (first seen in the early 1900s but became popular in the late fifties). It was the decade in which young people thrust their way into the spotlight, whether they were Teddy boys (members of a British youth subculture with a somewhat rowdy reputation; 1954), with their drainpipe trousers (1950) and duck’s arse hairstyle (shaped at the back like a duck’s tail; 1951) or beatniks (members of the beat generation; 1958). The slang of the period was US teenspeak, much of it inherited from the argot of jazz: far-out (1954), with it (1959), and swinging (1957), a gas (1955) and the most (1953) (all terms of approval), split the scene (leave; 1956) and see you later, alligator (said when parting; 1954), anything ending in -ville (e.g. dullsville, squaresville; 1956). To be old was to be a cube (1959).

The kids might be listening to music on their transistor radios (1958), or playing their albums (1952) on their new stereo (1954) systems and hi-fis (1955), but the biggest developments in electronic entertainment were going on in television, which in the course of the 50s grew exponentially to become the world’s leading medium of communication. By the middle of the decade the goggle-box (1959) – or simply the box (1958) – had ensconced itself firmly in the corner of the nation’s living rooms, with its diet of variety shows and panel games (1952). Meanwhile, in the US pay television (1956) and breakfast-time television (1952) were taking their first steps. In the cinema, directors experimented with Cinerama (1950) and CinemaScope (1953) (wide-screen formats) and 3-D (1955) filming, but a more significant long-term development was the appearance of videotape (1953).

Was there an element of whistling in the dark about this enthusiastic resumption of getting and spending, this febrile partying? Certainly anxiety was in the air. To the 1940s, nuclear weapons were a novel terror. In the 50s they became part of the landscape, a background to daily lives. They even acquired a pet name: nukes (1958). They progressed in destructive power (the H-bomb (1950)) and in the sophistication of their means of delivery (from the V bomber (1955) to the ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile; 1955)). The banal vocabulary of the thermonuclear bomb (1953) had a shocking familiarity: megadeath (1953), overkill (1957), the fall-out shelter (1955). Everyone had heard of kilotons (1950) and megatons (1952), and good old conventional (1955) weapons seemed quite comforting by comparison. There were many, though, who did not accept the official deterrent (1954) line. Towards the end of the decade the anti-nuclear protest movement began to grow. Groups such as CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; 1958) were formed, and the term unilateralism (unreciprocated renunciation of nuclear weapons; 1959) was added to the nuclear lexicon.

Among the most unsettling setbacks of the period for the West was the launch of the Soviet sputnik in 1957. Up till now, the US had assumed it was comfortably ahead in the space race (1955), but suddenly there was a real prospect that the winners would be cosmonauts (Russian space travellers; 1959) rather than astronauts. The result was an all-out US effort for a spectacular moon-shot (1949) in the next decade, culminating, hopefully, in a soft landing (1950). Towards the end of the 50s the US public, and television viewers worldwide, watching the count-down (1953) to blast-off (1951), started to become familiar with the aerospace (1955) jargon that would dominate the next two decades, as the space programme (1958) evolved. Meanwhile, on the lunatic fringe, the flying saucer had been respectablized as the UFO (unidentified flying object; 1953).

Computers were starting to move out of university laboratories into commercial establishments, albeit still as very large whirring boxes with flashing lights. Artificial intelligence (1955), information technology (1952), and data processors (1950) had their beginnings, and terms like bootstrap (1953) and modem (1958), on-line (1950), print-out (1953), and RAM (random-access memory; 1957), Algol (1959) and FORTRAN (1956) (both early programming languages) entered the English language.

Technology was beginning to dominate our diet, too. We could buy sliced bread (1958); the fish stick (1953), as adopted by American-English speakers, announced the arrival of frozen prepared dishes; and fast food (1951) appeared on the high street. And there were also signs of a growing penetration of foreign cuisines into the staid Anglo-Saxon gastronomic repertoire, exemplified by the likes of doner kebabs (1958), garlic bread (1951), tandoori (1958), and wok (1952).

Editor’s note: the first citation represents only the earliest documented use yet found by OED researchers; a word may have been in circulation somewhat earlier.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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