Words from the 1980s

Words from the 1980s

The habits of post-war austerity had begun to chafe in the 1960s. The economic shocks of the 1970s did little to permit the loosening of shackles, but in the 1980s the dam really burst. Money, and how to make and spend it, were at the top of the agenda.

Politically, deregulation was in the air. Patience with state controls was wearing thin, and people were ready to pass the levers of power into the hands of a right-wing government that would allow (or promise) more scope for individual initiative. In the world of high finance, this meant a clearing away of restrictions on how financiers were permitted to operate, and on the sort of fiscal schemes they could indulge in. As far as the British stock market was concerned, the climactic moment was the Big Bang of October 1986, which removed a whole range of previous restrictive practices. All the novel phenomena required names, and the fertile brains of brokers and bankers (at home with a menagerie of bulls, bears, and stags) obliged with an array of outlandish metaphors that have come to symbolize the decade: dawn raid (1980) and white knight (1978), golden hello (1983),golden parachute (1981), and greenmail (1983). Readers of the financial and business columns of the newspapers would puzzle over arbs (1983) and derivatives (1985), new acronyms like EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale; 1982) and PEP (personal equity plan; 1986), new concepts such as the internal market (in which departments within an organization charge each other for services; 1989). In the Far East the tiger (1981) (or dragon (1981)) economies were cranking themselves up, and from Japan came the notion of zaitech (investment in financial markets by a company; 1986). Payment increasingly meant plastic (1975), with the prospect of being able to swipe (1986) your smart card (1980). And Britain now had pound coins (1980), introduced in 1983.

People who had a lot of money in their pocket were intent on spending it – and not discreetly. If you had it, you flaunted it; it was the era of conspicuous consumption (a phrase from the late 19th century whose time had now come). The quintessential figure of the decade was the yuppie (1984), the high-earning 20-30-year-old business executive, lawyer, stockbroker, etc. with the smart car and the cell phone (1983). It was to be the first of a rash of such life-style coinages. The lexical fashion fad of the 1980s left a legacy of buppies (black yuppies; 1984), dinkies (dual income, no kids; 1986), and woopies (well-off older people; 1986). Stressed-out (1983) thirty-somethings (1981) relaxed in wine bars (1981), shopaholics (1977) shopped till they dropped, the chattering classes (1980) chattered, foodies (1980) held olive-oil tastings, and power dressing (1979) was the fashion statement that mattered.

But if the rich got richer in the 1980s, the poor also got poorer. Cardboard cities (1982) were appearing, and unemployment swelled the numbers attending job clubs (1985). No employee seemed safe from the dreaded UB40 (a card issued to unemployment-benefit claimants; 1983). This was the world not of the sharp suit but of the shell suit (1973). The happy partying of the earlier part of the decade gave way to the sound of lager louts (1987) breaking glass.

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed the enterprise culture (1979) and the joy of marketization (1978). Her government (bone-dry (1983) by the middle of the decade, having been purged of wets (1980)) pursued the feel-good factor (1984), but managed to upset Middle England (1982) with the poll tax (1985) (officially named the community charge (1985)). The leaderene (1980) gained a reputation for handbagging (1987) all who tried to thwart her. Television arrived in the British parliament and with it the strange practice of doughnutting (clustering round a speaker to give the impression of full attendance; 1989). Ominously, the terms sleaze (1980) and spin doctor (1984) appeared for the first time in the political lexicon.

In the 1980s, cyberspace (1982) infiltrated the interstices of the everyday world. Only an ageing minority were not, it seemed, computerate (1981), and able to cope with booting (1982) and dragging (1983), recognize an icon (1982) or a spreadsheet (1982), or use a laptop (1983), a palmtop (1987), or a touchpad (1974). Kids could play with their Pac-man (1981) or use their Game Boy (1989), and there were now vaccines (1986) to counter the threat of viruses. Increasingly, though, the computer’s most pervasive influence on the modern world lay in the area of communication. It was the decade that saw the beginnings of the internet (1974) and the information superhighway (1983), of email (1979) and domains (1978) and newsgroups (1983). The days of snail mail (1982) were numbered. The era of the virtual (1982) was coming.

Environmental concerns grew ever more powerful, as the extent of human depredations became increasingly evident. We embraced the concept of biodiversity (1985), eagerly bought eco-friendly (1989) and cruelty-free (1986) products, nodded over the necessity for a carbon tax (1979), and supported the construction of wind farms (1980). From its fringes (eco-terrorists (1986) and New Age travellers (1986)) to its solid middle-class centre, the environmental movement was a force to be reckoned with.

A prolific and vibrant youth culture produced a myriad new dances and styles of music (many of them of hip-hop (1979) origin). There was moshing (1987), body-popping (1982), and moonwalking (1983), break dancing (1982), dirty dancing (1987), and slam dancing (1981) (there was also lap dancing (1983), but that was not the same sort of thing at all). It was the decade of Acid House (1988), raves (1989), and warehouse parties (1988), of goths (1986) and thrash metal (1984), of the lambada (1988) and the bhangra (1987) beat. Garage (1987) took on a whole new meaning. It was a culture that got its highs from ecstasy (1985) (or E (1985)). Designer drugs (1983) were the fashion of the decade, Prozac (1985) the favourite happy pill, and crack (1985) the new market leader.

Meanwhile, PC (politically correct; 1986) language made further strides by introducing the euphemistic challenged (1980) to avoid charges of ableism (1981). Fattist (1987) comments were to be severely discouraged. The New Man (1982) proudly made his debut although, alas, within a decade he would have transformed himself into a New Lad (1991).

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.

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