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16 words from the 1960s

As the television show Mad Men recently reached its conclusion, we thought it might be fun to reflect on the contributions to language during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. This legacy is not surprising, given the huge shifts in culture that took place during this point in time, including the Civil Rights movement, the apex of the space race, the environmental movement, the sexual revolution, and—obviously—the rise of advertising and media. With this in mind, we picked 16 words from the 1960s that illuminate this historical moment.

1. sexploit

Given the advent of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the appearance of the blend sexploit (sex + exploit), an ‘instance of engaging in sexual activity of a casual or illicit nature’, is not all that surprising. Related words include sexploitation and sexcapade.

2. trendsetter

A trendsetter is something that leads the way in fashion or ideas. Today, trendsetter is more likely to refer to a person, but the word may also refer to a thing, such as a magazine, or a particular style of clothing.

3. A-OK

Although ‘OK’ in various forms had been around for more than a century, the form of ‘A-OK’ only really came into vogue in the early 1960s, a result of its repeated use during the transmissions of the Mercury 7 NASA mission. The phrase is a shortened version of ‘all systems OK’.

4. grok

We have science fiction writer Robert Heinlein to thank for the word grok—which means to ‘understand (something) intuitively or by empathy’—which first appeared in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. (The word grok also appears in Season 6 of Mad Men.)

5. paparazzo

The word paparazzo comes from Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, which features a freelance society photographer named Paparazzo. The word paparazzo soon came to mean ‘a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities to get photographs of them.’ Today, one usually hears the plural ‘paparazzi’ rather than the singular paparazzo.

6. bait-and-switch

Bait-and-switch refers to the generally illegal action of advertising goods that seem to be a bargain, with the intention of substituting either inferior or less expensive goods. While the term began its life in the advertising world, it soon found its way into general usage, eventually referring to the deceitful substitution of one thing for another.

7. miniseries

A development in television during the 1960s was the miniseries, a television drama that aired in a number of episodes rather than in a single broadcast or across several ‘seasons.’

8. phat

Meaning ‘excellent,’ the word phat emerged from African-American slang and is probably a respelling of the word fat, rather than an acronym referring to aspects of a woman’s anatomy, as some have suggested.

9. scam

Of unknown origin, the word scam refers to a ‘dishonest scheme’ or a ‘fraud’, and is also used as a verb in the sense of perpetrating such an action.

10. skateboard

An offshoot of the surfing culture in southern California during the 1940s and 1950s, the practice of skateboarding only really took off in the 1960s, when skateboard manufacturers began promoting and distributing their wares more widely. Wakeboarding was similarly popularized a few years later.

11. glitch

A slang term popularized by astronauts and NASA engineers in the early 1960s, glitch referred to a ‘sudden surge of current’ that would cause equipment to temporarily malfunction. Despite its surge in popularity in the 1960s, glitch was first used by radio operators in the 1940s. Today, the word refers more broadly to any snag, irregularity, or setback, especially one in video games or software.

12. braless

Marking the importance of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, the adjective braless emerged, referring to a woman not wearing a bra. Contrary to popular belief, there are no records of bras being burned during protests, although some women did throw them away.

13. biohazard

The ecological movement of the 1960s led to major changes in how people considered their effect on the environment. One word that emerged to express some of these issues was biohazard, referring to a ‘risk to human health or the environment arising from biological work, especially with microorganisms’.

14. teenybopper

The rise of rock and roll in the 1960s was paralleled by the rise of the teenybopper, referring to a young teenager (typically a girl) who follows the latest trends in pop music and fashion.

15. surf ‘n’ turf

Dating from the early 1960s, the delectable ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ (or ‘surf and turf’) on restaurant menus refers to a dish combining seafood and meat, especially one that includes lobster tail and steak.

16. head-trip

Among other things, a head-trip refers to a hallucinatory experience or altered state produced by consuming drugs. The term has come to refer more broadly to an experience likened to a drug hallucination, or a strange or profound experience.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Mad Men Smoke” by amira_a. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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