Carbon date your language – new words of the 1950s

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Over a series of articles, I want to look at how when we reflect back on the new words coined in previous decades we get a sense of the issues that dominated, be it the austerity of the fifties, the youth culture of the sixties or the economics of the Thatcher era. See for yourself (if you go that far back!) how much is conjured up by these neologisms that once were fresh, imaginative and open to interpretation.


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.

Medicine createdconcepts 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.

As holidays abroad become more affordable, food was influenced by popular holiday destinations. Doner-kebabs, tandoori, woks translated across along with 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 can be interpreted by concepts such as boutiques, Y-fronts, stiletto heels, polo-necked sweater, drip-dry, tracksuits, jeans and ponytails. Teens talked ofthings 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!).

Other articles in this series: Carbon date your language 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s

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