I’m spending a lot of time doing research these days. My Redclaw Origins series is set in the 1950s, and this has me scrambling to look up the release dates of certain movies, or which songs were on the Top 40 in August of 1955.
When I write a story with a historical setting, I like to immerse myself in the culture of that time period. Once, when working on a story that had a scene set in 1940, I spent over a month reading books and watching documentaries on WW2. That may seem like overkill for a single scene, but it’s more than just making sure you’ve gotten some small fact right. It’s about getting into the mindset of your characters by understanding the prevailing politics and societal mores of the time. So now I’ve been perusing sites that describe ladies’ undergarments, searching for real landmarks to use in the story, diving into the fascinating world of nightclubs, trying to determine when en suite bathrooms became expected in hotels, and so on.
Somehow, I never expected slang to be a big part of the series. Mostly because one character is British–and I thought his style of speech wouldn’t lend itself to much American slang. The other character is a former society girl–ditto, right?
But not really. Slang is so pervasive in our culture, we don’t really recognize when we use it or not–see example above “ditto”. The society girl would also have a much greater tendency to use slang than I thought. But there are expressions and phrases that have only come into being in the last thirty to forty years or so–and while they may sound right at first, you can’t use the phrase “get the bugs out” if it didn’t come into popular use before the advent of widespread software design.
To complicate matters, when Admiral Grace Harper was working on a Mark II computer at Harvard in the 1940s and a moth got into the relays, she described the removal process as “debugging”. Because it was literally and figuratively what she did, the phrase stuck, and yet she didn’t lay claim to having coined the phrase, as it was in use among pilots before then. In fact, the use of the word bug to describe a technical error has been attributed to Thomas Edison in 1878. Computer programmers adopted the phrase in the 1950s, but widespread use by the general public came much later. And there’s the rub. Here you have a perfectly good slang phrase that you can show existed well before the time period in question, but it still may not have been commonly used.
So I’ve been spending a lot of time checking out websites that serve as slang dictionaries. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered is not how much things have changed but how much has stayed the same. Sure, 50s slang had a way of adding words instead of reducing them–for example, “Are you writing a book?” was used to tell someone they were asking too many questions and “agitate the gravel” was to leave in a hurry. Today, we’re far more likely to reduce our speech to acronyms, such as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and YOLO (You Only Live Once)–probably because texting is so popular, and these acronyms save time and characters when typing. Interestingly enough, I rarely use acronyms. I wasn’t much of a texter until I got a smart phone with a microphone–and now I dictate my texts, so acronyms don’t come into it very often. I can’t help but wonder if changes in technology will affect patterns of slang again in the future.
But one of the most fascinating things I discovered in my searches is how much has lingered on from previous popular turns of phrase. We still say “cool” to denote someone who is calm under pressure but also someone who is up-to-the-minute fashionable or impressive in some way–someone we’d like to emulate. The biggest difference between the use of “cool” in the 50s vs now seems to be the pronunciation, with the cool kids today stretching out the vowels.
Another holdover is “pad” to refer to someone’s home. Though perhaps not in use quite as much as cool, we still hear places referred to as bachelor pads from time to time. On occasion, I also still hear people refer to kids as ankle-biters, despite the fact the speaker wasn’t born until the 1980s. And when someone wrecks their car beyond repair, we still say it’s been totaled. While I haven’t heard it used in many years, I can recall hearing someone describe something gross as being grody. And if you told me that you thought I was a spaz, I’d know you thought I was clutzy and uncoordinated.
Slang often has roots in unkind origins–for example, to be a spaz is short for spastic, and if you are spastic, you’re affected by uncontrollable muscle spasm, which might make someone uncoordinated or clutzy. Often the slang use of such words as “retard” or “lame” in a derogatory fashion results in peer pressure to stop the practice. The use of slang is so pervasive that many people have forgotten the origins of some of the words. I can recall a conversation we had with the kids to discourage them from saying, “That’s so gay,” when they wanted to refer to something they thought was stupid or boring. Because all of their friends–even their gay friends–used the phrase, they had a hard time seeing it as a microaggression that was hurtful to a marginalized group.
Words and phrases definitely seem to go in and out of fashion. Use of certain words can date us as writers, especially if we’re writing about characters much younger than we are. If I were to write a story featuring teenagers, I’d have to do a study of today’s slang much as I’m doing right now for my 50s characters.
Also, different groups have their own slang, which may or may not make it into the general lexicon. If you’re writing about hot-rodders, surfers, or Regency dandies, you must keep that in mind.
While this is by no means a complete compilation, here is a list of 50s slang posted by the Lincoln-Sudbury High School (compiled, no doubt, as a homework assignment):
Agitate the Gravel: to leave (hot-rodders)
Ankle Biter: a child
Ape: (used with “go”) to explode or be really mad
Baby: cute girls, term of address for either sex
Back seat bingo: necking in a car
Bad news: depressing person
Bash: great party
Big Daddy: an older person
Big tickle: really funny
Bit: an act
Blast: a good time
Blow off: to defeat in a race (hot-rodders)
Bug: “you bug me” – to bother
Burn rubber: to accelerate hard and fast
Cast an eyeball: to look
Cat: a hip person
Chrome-plated: dressed up
Classy chassis: great body
Cloud 9: really happy
Clyde: term of address, usually for a normal person (Beats)
Cook, Cookin’: doing it well
Cooties: imaginary infestations of the truly un-cool
Cranked: excited (Beats)
Crazy: “Like crazy, man” implies an especially good thing
Cream: originally, to dent a car. Later, to badly damage
Cruisin’ for a bruisin’: looking for trouble
Cut out: leave
Daddy-o: term of address (Beats)
Dibs: a claim – as in “got dibs” on that seat
Dig: to understand; to approve
Dolly: cute girl
Don’t have a cow: don’t get so excited
Drag: (hot-rodders) a short car race (Beats); a bore
Eyeball: look around
Fake out: a bad date
Fast: someone who was sexually active
Fat city: a great thing or place; happy
Fire up: start your engine
Flat out: fast as you can
Flat-top: men’s hairstyle (a crewcut which is flat across the top)
Flick: a movie
Flip: to get very excited
Floor it: push the accelerator to the floor
Fracture: to amuse
Fream: someone who doesn’t fit in
Get bent!: disparaging remark as in “drop dead”
Gig: work, job (Beats)
Go for pinks: a drag race where the stakes are the car’s pink slip
Goof: someone who makes mistakes
Goose it: accelerate the car fully
Greaser: a guy with tons of grease in his hair
Grody: sloppy or messy
Hang: as in “hang out” which means to do very little
Haul ass: drive very fast
Heat: police (Beats)
Hep: with it, cool
Hip: someone who is cool, in the know
Hopped up: a car modified for speed
Hottie: a very fast car
Illuminations: good ideas, thoughts
In orbit: in the know
Jacked up: car with a raised rear end
Jacketed: going steady
Jelly Roll: men’s hair combed up and forward on both sides, brought together in the middle of the forehead
Kick: a fun or good thing; a fad
Kill: to really impress
Knuckle sandwich: a fist in the face
Lay a patch: to accelerate so rapidly that you leave a patch of rubber on the road
Make out: a kissing session
Make the scene: to attend a party or activity
Mirror warmer: a piece of pastel fabric (often cashmere) tied around the rear view mirror. (A 1950s version of the Medieval wearing your lady’s colors.)
Most: a in “the most” – high praise usually of the opposite sex
Nerd: same as now
Nest: a hair-do
Nod: drift off to sleep
No sweat: no problem
Nowhere: opposite of cool (Beats)
Nuggets: loose change
Odd ball: someone a bit off the norm
On the stick: pulled together. Bright, prepared…
Paper shaker: cheerleader or Pom Pom girl
Party pooper: no fun at all
Passion pit: Drive-in movie theater
Pile up Z’s: get some sleep
Pound: beat up
Punch it: release the clutch quickly do as to get a fast start
Put down: to say bad things about someone
Radioactive: very popular
Rag top: a convertible car
Rap: to tattle on someone (Beats)
Rattle your cage: get upset
Raunchy: messy or gross in some way
Razz my berries: excite or impress me
Real gone: very much in love. Also unstable.
Reds: the Communists
Rock: a diamond
Rocket: a car
Rod: a car
Royal shaft: badly or unfairly treated
Scream: go fast
Shot down: failed
Shucks, shuckster: a deceiver, liar or cheat
Sides: vinyl records
Sing: to tattle or inform on someone (Beats)
Souped up: a car modified to go fast
Spaz: someone who is uncoordinated, a clutz
Square: a regular, normal person. A conformist.
Stacked: a well-endowed woman
Subterranean: a hipster (used by both Ginsberg and Kerouac – Beats)
Tank: a large sedan (usually driven by parents)
Tear ass: drive (or go) very fast
Tight: good friends
Total: to completely destroy, most often in reference to a car
Wail: go fast
Wazoo: your rear end
Weed: a cigarette
Wet rag: someone who’s just no fun
Word from the bird: the truth (Beats)
What’s your tale, nightingale?: What’s the story?
Wheelie: lift the car’s front wheels off the ground by rapid acceleration
I also found the following lists useful:
20 Slang Terms from the 1950s No One Uses Anymore
You’ll find a lot of overlap in the lists–presumably because they all relied on the same source material. If you come across a different and more complete list, I’d love to hear about it!
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“Crazy man very Fat City”!!
Made me laugh! Thanks for the appropriately used addition!