My Favourite Words of Every Decade since the Fifties

My Favourite Words of Every Decade since the Fifties

In each decade of the Queen’s reign new words have been coined, many of which resonate strongly with, and add colour to, their respective era. Here are my individual favourites.

THE FIFTIES

Mushroom Cloud

In an era noted for its political anxiety, a rich and diverse vocabulary was coined to reflect the changing landscape. Nuclear weapons, as a prevailing subject, brought with it: cruise-missiles, fall-out, mushroom cloud and overkill. The space race brought a familiarity to television viewers with terms such as count-down and blast-off. Technology, on the computer front, brought artificial intelligence, modem and real time. Politics coined privatisation, unilateralism, backlash (from the racial tensions in the US) and blue-collar (from the stereotypical blue overalls of the artisan), the political ‘summit’, ombudsmen, twin towns, the silent majority and economic ‘growth and meritocracy.

Tennessee State Police’s Meter Maid Patrol circa 1962

Medicine created concepts such as biological clocks, slipped discs, fitted pacemakers, warfarin and thalidomide. On the road and its zebra crossing came Vespas, scooters and mopeds to be supervised by traffic wardens and meter maids.

Food was influenced by a more foreign cuisine with doner-kebabs, tandoori, woks and garlic bread, sliced bread and fish fingers had their entrance as did the place-mat and rotisserie.

The age of the teen, the beatnik, and Teddy-boy inherited much of its slang from The States, especially from the world of jazz: far out, way out, swinging, a gas, funky and anything ending in –ville. Music was a significant element in youth culture with dee-jays, albums, discotheques. Alongside music, fashion brought boutiques, Y-fronts, stiletto heels, polo-necked sweater, drip-dry, tracksuits, jeans and ponytails. Teens talked of things being fab, people such as nerds or weirdos were told to naff off or get stuffed.

Sexual mores were changing, to become more permissive in the 60’s, thanks to the pill. There were wolf-whistles, consenting adults, kinky, sex kittens, wife-swapping, sexpot and transexualism.

Words of a less topically-inspired nature included short sharp shock, surplus, time warp, unflappable, underwhelm and stuff (used in various expressions of dismissive contempt based on the idea of inserting an object into a bodily orifice).


THE SIXTIES

The confidence of the sixties decade brought with it a flock of new vocabulary.

The Cold War era brought us body count, damage limitation, the black box, hawks and doves, ‘surgical’ strikes and peaceniks.

Developments in space meant the arrival of moon walks, splash-down, module, pulsar and black hole. The world of computers was even more a field of discovery for new words: digital, database, software, chip, byte and even computer dating. The business world coined golden handshake, conglomerate, consumerism and deregulation.

As is often the case, the young were the creators of much of the new language, especially when it related directly to their lives: grotty, gear, switched on, aggro, naff, groupies, bovver, teeny-boppers, with it, freak out and, of course, vibes.

Bob Marley with dreadlocks

Fashion brought with it thongs and caftans, dreadlocks, tights, flares and hipsters. The drug world, always a main source of slang and argot, saw the arrival of mind-expanding, of uppers and downers, poppers, tabs and angel dust; drink-driving brought about the breathalyser and sexual habits the missionary position.

The media world developed with paparazzi, image makers, chat-shows, pagers, sitcoms, videos, cassettes, answerphones and phone-ins.The environmental movement added impetus with biodegradable, endangered, global village and unleaded and those aligned to the ‘mind, body and spirit’ outlook identified cellulite, biorhythms, lotus position, aerobics, ego-trip, lateral thinking, lige-style, extra-terrestrial, shiatsu and holistic medicine,  body language and born-again.

Prosperity engendered microwave ovens, garden centres and jet lag, and greater access to foreign lands assimilated au pair girls, chicken kiev, crudités, Jacuzzis and Kiwi fruit. 

Compound words, blending or merging two words, were abundant with docudrama, identikit, faction and advertorial. Other words of no obvious topical consequence were orchestrate, midlife crisis, kiss of life (which supplanted the old arm-pumping technique and which tidied itself up to become mouth-to mouth resuscitation in due course) and gender (being the sex of a human being, from the point of view of the social and cultural, rather than the biological distinction).


THE SEVENTIES

The reaction to the Sixties kicked in. The evolution of business practice brought golden handshakes, buy-outs, bean counters, asset-striping, pyramid selling, quango, creative accounting, cashpoints, laundering of money, debit cards and direct debit. Employment concerns meant a range of neologisms such as, dehire, downsizing, flying pickets, industrial action, flexitime and job centres and the classic word jobsworth. The advance of computers meant that we came up against high-tech, laser printers, windows, dot matrix, word processors, hacking and data protection.

The troubles in Northern Ireland introduced us to rubber bullets, car bomb, no-go area, and politics generally brought collateral damage, spin, human shield, the hard left, boat people, back to basics, and Militant Tendency.

The Popemobile

Environmentalism brought its own new vocabulary: tree-huggers, doomwatch, noise pollution, global warming, pooper-scooper, gas guzzlers and bottle banks. On the tarmac were speed bumps and the Popemobile. Media and communications invented kiss and tell, electronic mail, prequels, megastars, supermodels, televangelists, couch potatoes, action replays, compact discs and pay-per-view.

Sexual politics arrived along with women being liberated, gender gap, paternity leave, full-frontal nudity, libbers and male chauvenism.  Sexist assumptions found the use of the word man as a masculine word, spawning the reassessment of the word chairperson and herstory (for history). Society found itself concerned with baby boomers, the poverty trap and quality time.

The British interest in food adopted the food processor, detox, cling film, pina coladas, pub grub, Big Mac, vegeburgers, junk food, minibars and nouvelle cuisine and the Australian barbie.

The younger generation, as always, coined much of the new lingo with airhead, karaoke, and the world of sex brought nubile and page three girl. Fashion, always reinventing itself, spawned leg-warmers, flip-flops, trainers and hot pants, the bomber jacket and the futon.

Less topically derived were cherry-pick, piss artist, her indoors, line in the sand, and squeaky clean (probably originating from hair that had been washed and rinsed so clean that it squeaks).


THE EIGHTIES

The Eighties, and the birth of Thatcherism, saw the widespread development of a new era for the business world. In came new words: golden hello, dawn raids, derivatives, telebanking, cashback and smart cards. There were yuppies and dinkies and, epitomised by Thatcher herself, power-dressing and handbagging. The decade saw in the enterprise culture and the feel-good factor, the poll tax and political ‘wets’. But victims of this cultural change brought dependency culture, help-lines, cardboard cities and income support.

The Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution

On the world stage Russia gave us perestroika and glasnost, Czechoslovakia: the velvet revolution, the Falklands’ conflict: gotcha and yomp and elsewhere: no-fly zones.

Computer developments introduced us to cyberspace, spreadsheets, downloading, laptops and teleworking and saw in the beginnings of the Internet, the information superhighway and e-mail. Products abounded with satellite dishes, camcorders, Pac-man and Game Boy, ghetto-blasters and Walkmans.

Environmentalists coined biodiversity, wind farms and the carbon tax and there were New Age travellers, crop circles and eco-terrorists. Safe sex was espoused as a result of the spread of Aids and elsewhere in the medical and biological worlds came keyhole surgery, ME (or yuppie flu) and repetitive strain injury and the feared BSE (mad cow disease).

Youth culture brought high-fives, break dancing, hip-hop, moonwalking, warehouse parties and raves with ecstacy, prozac and crack the new drugs. Fashion saw fashion victims, bondage trousers, the medallion man, liposuction, go-faster stripes and shell suits and mousse for the hair.  As for their general slang, there was gobsmacked, massive, radical, crucial, wicked, mega and brill.

Foodies talked of ciabatta, estate agents of des res near wine bars, parents were accused of hothousing, drivers of road rage and wheel clamps. The sex industry introduced sex workers (politically-correct speak for prostitutes), stripagrams and lap dancing.

Society created the champagne socialists, the chattering classes and the A list; eye-candy and air-kissing, lager louts and brat packs, bouncy castles, and car-boot sales.

Less topically inspired was the dog’s bollocks, meaning the very best, the height of excellence, whose origins are unknown but thought to be in keeping with the tradition of the cat’s whiskers coined as early as 1923.


THE NINETIES

As the millennium drew to a close, despite two world wars in one century, war continued its course and with it a new set of vocabulary with friendly fire, ethnic cleansing, and rapid-reaction force.

Politics, as ever, brought new definitions with events such as the council tax and cash for questions, terms such as green shoots of economic recovery and parliamentarians’ chicken run. New Labour and its third way, brought tough love, off-message and welfare to work.

Commerce introduced the loyalty card. The computer industry, ever-advancing, coined the Web, created mouse potatoes and cybercafes, web sites and home page, spam, morphing and famously the millennium bug.

Cool Britannia and Britpop, reinstated a sense of confidence, despite benefit tourism, crusties, trailer trash, negative equity and jobseekers. There were docusoaps, personal stereos, red top tabloids, and workers dressed down and hot-desked while the media was accused of dumbing-down and naming and shaming.

Sexual mores meant that now there was Viagra, outing and bobbitting. The youth culture involved laddish behaviour and heroin chic, were loved-up, wore grunge clothes, drank alcopops, sat in chill-out rooms and told others to ‘get a life‘ or ‘get their kit off’. Their own inventive lingo brought saddo, poptastic, phat, slapper and babelicious.

Colin Firth doing the Dadrock in “What A Girl Wants”

Fashion created bad hair days. Sport had nul points, golden goal and spread betting, and with cricket, barmy army and ball-tampering. Daredevils went canyoning and zorbing. Food could be come in juice boxes, and meet was sold on the bone, churches embraced the happy-clappy if perhaps not the pre-nup. Children could be home alone, Dadrock, a disparaging term for rock music played by middle-aged rock stars, was the step before the elderly who suffered descriptions such as granny dumping and the grey pound.

Less topically induced in this decade came decluttering, misper (a person reported missing). Patronisingly or otherwise people said bless while mwah was the new air-kiss. Cleverly, a pharm was a place where genetically modified plants or animals were grown or reared to produce pharmacological products.


THE NOUGHTIES

Youth culture, the coiner of so much vocabulary with which to confound older generations, created chavs, bling, bovvered and the cuddle puddle (for a heap of exhausted ravers) and fogging for children showing minimal reaction to or agreeing with the taunts of a bully.  

Politics created the glass ball environment (US intelligence jargon) of the weather in Iraq being often conducive to collecting images from above and, with the media’s help, goldfishing for one politician talking inaudibly in an interview (you can see his lips move but only hear the reporter’s words) and doughnuting for a carefully created seating plan which places an ideal group of MPs (women, photogenic, ethnic minority etc.) around a leader for the ideal television shot.

Office jargon, another major source of neologisms, gave us chair plug: someone who sits in a meeting but contributes nothing and fox hole: the area beneath desk where telephone calls can take place peacefully.

The computer revolution brought blogs, podcasting, mashups, wiki, Facebook and Twitter and entertainment spawned meh (US slang from “The Simpsons”) meaning boring, apathetic or unimpressive.

Social habits created smirting for the flirting between people who are smoking cigarettes outside a no-smoking office, pub, etc., the urbeach (an urban beach from a trend which begun with the Paris Plage in 2002), flairing: the action of bartenders of balancing, catching, flipping, spinning or throwing with finesse and style, public bakists for young couples who insist on french-kissing passionately in front of everybody and not caring and hunter-ditherer for a man who wavers with regard to commitment in a relationship.

Saffron Burrows’ trout pout

New family structures created the goose father who lives alone having sent his spouse and children to a foreign country to learn English or do some other form of advanced study and the ant hill family for the trend whereby children move back in with their parents so that all work together towards group financial goals.

Fashion brought trout pout for the effects of collagen injections that produce prominent, comically oversized lips resembling those of a dead fish and menoporsche for the phenomenon of middle-aged men attempting to recapture their lost youth by buying an expensive sports car.

Out in the countryside came witches’ knickers (shopping bags caught in trees, and flapping in the wind) and cowpat roulette: a game from Somerset in which villagers bet on which plot of land will be the first to receive a cow’s calling card.

Adam Jacot de Boinod

About N/A N/A

Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World (Penguin Books) and the Tingo app for iPhones. His new book, The Wonder of Whiffling, which looks at unusual words in English, is also out now.

One comment

  1. Aby says:

    This site is so nice, Thanks for this post.
    It actually reminds me of this site which seems cool: favoritewords.com, it’s relevant here and I think we can connect to each other by using our words. Plus, it’s free so probably worth trying.

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