Words from the 1960s
If youth had flexed its muscles in the 1950s, in the 1960s it ruled the roost. Out on the streets, in the clubs and on the campuses, it was young people (the baby-boomers (1963), as they came to be known, after the post-World War II surge in the birth rate) who were setting the agenda, and it is their vocabulary that in may ways carries the most telling resonances of the decade – 60s’ vibes (1967).
Their terms of commendation, such as in (1960), switched on (1964), fab (1961), knock-out (1966), and together (1968), and terms of condemnation, including grotty (1964), its American cousin grody (1969), and naff (1966), expressed the crucial judgments of the day. Their clans – mods (1960), rockers (1963), skinheads (1969) – made the headlines, often with threats of aggro (1969) or bovver (1969). But above all, it was the music. Picking up on the impetus of 1950s rock’n’roll, the pop music scene exploded in the 1960s, and its sheer diversity contributed sackfuls of new vocabulary to the language. Each new music style or dance had a name more outlandish than the last (the twist (1961), bossa nova (1962), frug (1964), hully gully (1964), watusi (1964), ska (1964), acid rock (1966)). In Britain, the Merseybeat (1963) reversed many years of American domination of the charts (1963), and the Beatlemania (1963) that sent popsters (1963), groupies (1966), and teeny-boppers (1966) into a frenzy soon spread to the US. For those with ears not attuned to all this, the 1960s was also the decade in which the concept of easy listening (1965) first adorned our musical life.
In acknowledgment of the new commercial realities, the world of fashion shifted its beady eyes from haute couture to the lucrative youth market. Teenagers set the trends, and the hemlines – minis (1966; short for miniskirt (1962)), midis (1969), and maxi-skirts (1966); kinky boots (1964), Chelsea boots (1962), and thongs (the sandal, not the undergarment; 1967); flares (1964), caftans (1965), and granny glasses (1965). Tights (1965) saw off stockings and suspenders. As male hair lengthened, the unisex (1966) look came in.
As part of the same package came recreational drugs, comparatively innocent-sounding in retrospect, shocking though they were to authority’s sensibilities at the time: poppers (1967) and tabs (1961), speed (1967) and acid (1965), purple hearts (1961) and angel dust (1969) – not to mention the more potent skag (heroin; 1967) and the homespun highs of glue sniffing (1963). They opened the door in the latter part of the decade to the alternative (1962) world of the flower children (1967), the alternative society (1968), counter-culture (1970), psychedelia (1967), be-ins (1967) and love-ins (1967), Hare Krishna (1968) and the Age of Aquarius (1967).
But hippies were not the only ones taking drugs in the 1960s. In an age of growing emphasis on the individual and their psyche, uppers (1968) and downers (1966) and tranks (tranquillizers; 1967) found a wide market, and there was no lack of customers for anti-anxiety drugs like Librium (1960) and Valium (1961), Mandrax (1963) and diazepam (1961). A self-absorbed concern with health found lexical expression in items as diverse as cellulite (1968) and holistic medicine (1960), biorhythms (cycles supposedly affecting someone’s physical and emotional state; 1961) and shiatsu (1967).
From the moment Yuri Gagarin’s rocket blasted off in April 1961, space travel stepped from the wilder shores of science fiction to everyday reality, and the subsequent years of the decade familiarized us with such concepts as launch windows (1965) and splashdowns (1961). We learnt to handle the jargon for all the hardware: lander (1961), module (1961), LEM (lunar excursion module; 1962), shuttle (1969). When astronauts reassured mission control that the situation was nominal (normal; 1961), we nodded sagely.
But undoubtedly the area of technology that made the greatest lexical advances in the 1960s was computer science. As yet it was largely confined to specialists, but as computeracy (1969) spread and one by one various aspects of our lives became computerized (1960), we would learn the significance of bytes (1964), chips (1962), cursors (1967), databases (1962), mice (1965), peripherals (1962), and software (1958). We could format (1965) and access (1959) to our heart’s content, fluent in ASCII (1963), BASIC (1964), and COBOL (1960) (all programming languages). We had the key to the computer’s limitations – GIGO (garbage in, garbage out; 1964). And for our leisure moments there were computer games (1955) and computer dating (1965).
Signs in the 1960s of things to come included, in the US, civil rights legislation and moves towards racial desegregation, where black power (1965) began to assert itself, and the beginnings of environmentalism (photos of the Earth taken from the Moon were a forceful argument for the global village; 1959): biodegradable (1959) and unleaded (as applied to fuel for vehicles; 1958) entered our vocabulary, species became endangered (1964) or threatened (1960), and eco- (as added to non-specialist nouns, as in ecofreak; 1969) was a strong contender for prefix of the decade. Of political correctness, the terms ageism (1969) and tokenism (1962) were coined in the 1960s.
In a world still frozen deeply in the Cold War, doves (1962) talked of non-proliferation (1962) and SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks; 1968) while the minds of the hawks (1962) were more on flexible response (1963) and surgical (1965) strikes. Despite the peaceniks (1962), it was the hawks who largely got their way over the Vietnam war – providing the US with a long-lasting scar on its national psyche, and ensuring that the English language now embraces such unlovely, derogatory, or ominous terms as body count (1962), dink (a Vietnamese person; 1969), frag (kill with a grenade; 1970), and Agent Orange (a defoliant; 1966).
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.
Read Words from the 1970s.
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.