Words from the 1970s

Words from the 1970s

The decade that time forgot? The 1970s have made little apparent impression on latterday generations, while many of those who actually lived through those orange and brown years seem to wish they hadn’t. Can any of the new vocabulary of that period help to pinpoint the sources of disenchantment?

The 70s were certainly not the happiest of times in the workplace: not much call for the smiley face emoticon so associated with the decade there. It was the decade of strikes and flying pickets (1974), culminating in the UK in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79. Many lost their jobs, and found out all about the newly named job centres (1972; rather less intimidating-sounding than the previous labour exchange) and the giro cheques (1972) with which their benefits were paid. The market in new euphemisms for ‘firing an employee’ was brisk: dehire (1970), deselect (as applied to sitting MPs; 1979), outplace (1970).

But, despite the disruption caused by the rapid early-decade rise in oil prices, the fatter cats were still doing well enough to expand the language of capitalism. The terminology of the bean counters (1975) made considerable strides. Corporate manoeuvrings produced buy-outs (1976) and asset stripping (1971). There was much work for creative accountants (1973), perhaps even involving the laundering (1973) of funds. We could pick up our cash from a cashpoint (1973), or simply use plastic money (1969) – a debit card (1975), perhaps – or even pay by direct debit (1976). In the UK, buyers and sellers had to cope with the vocabulary of a new currency, introduced on 15 February 1971: was it to be pee (1971) or pence (1971)? (The eventual winner was the former, but realized orthographically as simply p.) Meanwhile, economists and financiers bemused us with talk of PSBR (public-sector borrowing requirement; 1975), supply-side (as applied to the policy of cutting taxes to encourage growth; 1976), petrodollars (1973), and index-linked (1970) granny bonds (1976).

The major change in the UK’s political and economic circumstances was its joining of the European Economic Community in 1973. We grew familiar with the green pound (1974), E-numbers (1973), wine lakes (1974), and the mysterious snake (a narrow range of exchange-rate fluctuations; 1972). In future there would be the prospect of EMU (economic and monetary union; 1969), the ECU (European currency unit; 1970), and the euro (already under active discussion; 1971), not to mention a continuing flow of often hostile or mocking Euro– compounds, such as Eurospeak (1975), Euro-MP (1975), and Eurosummit (1972).

Closer to home in Britain, the troubles in Northern Ireland were taking a grip, and we had to add car bombing (1970), and the verb kneecap (1975),, Provo (a member of the Provisional IRA; 1971), and Bloody Sunday (1972) to our vocabulary. The prospect of proximity talks (1971) was well in the future. On the wider political scene it was a polarized time, with the loony left (1977) in the ascendancy, Militant Tendency (1979) active in the Labour party, and Thatcherism (1977) on the horizon. In the US the concept of spin (1977) was invented, which would permeate politics round the world in the final quarter of the century.

The computer continued its march towards the centre of our lives, bringing with it copious amounts of new vocabulary, at first arcane, now commonplace or even obsolescent: floppy disk (1972) and hard disk (1973), microprocessor (1969) and window (in the sense of a compartment for a particular file, etc. on a computer screen; 1977) and the dreaded virus (1972). We acquired PCs (personal computers; 1977) and word processors (1968), and to print the result of our labours, the dot matrix (1975), the daisy wheel (1977), and the laser printer (1979). We could sit at our workstation (1972) in our paperless office (1975), communicate via the Ethernet (a local-area network of computers; 1976), and hope the whole system did not crash (1973); or perhaps, with the help of the computer, we could simply telecommute (1972) from home. User-friendly (1972) touch screens (1974) facilitated our transactions, and we had not yet heard of hacking (1983) – dataveillance (1972) was low on our list of priorities. If we just wanted to veg out (1979) and play, there was Space Invaders (1979).

It was the era of hot pants (1970) and leg-warmers (as fashion accessories (1974); dancers had been using them for decades), Doctor Martens (1977), and bustiers (1978), loon pants (with wide flares; 1971), skinny sweaters (1970), and Afghan coats (these shaggy sheepskin coats had been known since the late 19th century, but they became fashionable in the early 1970s) – all of them now the epitome of unstylishness.

The upwardly mobile could plump for nouvelle cuisine (1975), cook their chicken in a chicken brick (1970) from Habitat, or join the race for Beaujolais nouveau (1972). The downmarket choice was pub food (1970), junk food (1973), or a Big Mac (1969).

But if there was one phenomenon above all that marked out the 70s it was the gender issue. The 60s feminist campaign against sexism began to bear fruit. Sexual politicians (1970) made their voices heard, and women’s studies (1969) were well up the agenda at universities and colleges. The libbers (1971) pursued their guerrilla war with the male chauvinist pigs (1970). The gender gap (1969) was closing, and expectant fathers were demanding paternity leave (1973). The effects of the feminist revolution reached into the very fabric of the English language. They made great strides as a non-sex-specific replacement for the discriminatory he (s/he (1973) worked only in print, and never really caught on), and a number of compounds began to appear in which –person replaced –man: chairperson (1971), for example, and spokesperson (1972). The door was opening to the politically correct (1970) vocabulary of the 1980s.

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 1980s.

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