The Oxford English Dictionary has 405 words with first citations from 1951. In that year, science fiction was big, giving us blast-offs, gee, and Vegans; with the Cold War heating up, missile men were on a need-to-know basis, and U. S. and Russian chemical engineers were figuring out how to make Sarin, Soman, and Tabun in great quantities; it was easier for couples who had engaged in extramarital sexcapades to head to to splitsville; and Dacron, Rolodexes, and Maalox hit the store shelves.
Events of 1951:
- January: China and North Korean forces capture Seoul for the second time; the United States conducts its first nuclear test in Nevada; writer Sinclair Lewis dies.
- February: The twenty-second amendment to the U. S. Constitution is ratified, limiting the president to two terms.
- March: The National Basketball Association (NBA) holds its first all-star game; Hank Ketcham’s comic Dennis the Menace begins syndication; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted of espionage; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I opens on Broadway, making a star of Yul Brynner; the first UNIVAC computer is sold, to the U. S. Census Bureau.
- April: U. S. President relieves General Douglas Macarthur of command in Korea; the Treaty of Paris establishes the European Coal and Steel Community, which will eventually grow to become the European Union; Howard Hawk’s film The Thing is released; philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein dies.
- May: Entertainer Fanny Brice dies.
- July: William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain announce the invention of the transistor; Korean armistice talks begin at Kaesong; Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is released; French general and politician Marshall Philippe Pétain dies.
- August: J. D. Salinger publishes The Catcher in the Rye; George Pal’s film When Worlds Collide is released; newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst dies.
- September: Australia, New Zealand, and the United States sign the ANZUS mutual defense pact; Robert Wise’s film The Day the Earth Stood Still premieres.
- October: N. Y. Giant Bobby Thomson hits the “Shot Heard Around the World” when he hits a pennant-winning home run off Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca; I Love Lucy debuts on CBS Television; Henrietta Lacks, the donor who provided the HeLa cell line dies.
- November: Direct dial, coast-to-coast telephone service is inaugurated in the United States; Gigi, starring Audrey Hepburn, makes its Broadway debut.
- December: The Marshall Plan expires on 31 December, having distributed $13.3 billion in U. S. aid for European reconstruction; disgraced baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and New Yorker founder Harold Ross die.
The words of 1951:
blast-off, n. The most recent revision of the OED hasn’t gotten to the Bs yet, and sometimes the delay shows. The OED has this space term from 1951, but the 2007 Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction records it in use as early as 1944.
carbon-dated, adj. Radio-carbon dating dates to the previous year, but the term is quickly clipped.
Cinerama, n. Even though it has very little market penetration in 1951, television is striking fear in the hearts of Hollywood studios. In response, the studios come up with various schemes to tout the superiority of the theater experience. Cinerama, which uses three cameras to project a film on a large, curved screen, is one.
Dacron, n. Dupont’s Fiber V is renamed in 1951.
Day-Glo, n. The British trademark for the fluorescent paint is filed in 1951. The U. S. trademark follows the next year.
el, adj. In 1951 the journal American Speech records the jocular use of the Spanish article attached to an obviously English word, as in el cheapo.
fast food, adj. and n. America’s most substantial, but not proudest, contribution to world cuisine debuts in this year.
falafel, n. Fast food in 1951 is not limited to hamburgers. [Languagehat may have antedated falafel to 1944.]
Fulbright, n. Senator J. William Fulbright sponsored the 1946 law that funded study by American scholars abroad and foreign study in the United States, and by 1951, scholars are talking about getting a Fulbright.
gee, n.8 The OED has this term for a measure of acceleration equal to earth’s gravity from 1951, but like blast-off, the more recent Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction has it from a bit earlier, 1949. The abbreviation G is even older.
hangul, n.2 The name for the Korean alphabet is from the Korean han “Korea” + kul “script.” The Korean name was coined in 1912, but took several decades to work itself into English. [Languagehat has antedated English use of hangul to 1944.]
imprimatura, n. From the Italian imprimitura, the name for the priming glaze used on canvases starts appearing in English-language art manuals in 1951.
last-ditch, adj. The substantive last ditch, often found in the phrase to die in the last ditch, goes back to the early eighteenth century, but the adjectival use is relatively recent. The OED only dates the adjective last-ditch to 1951, although the 17 June 1940 issue of Life magazine uses last-ditch stand to describe the battle of Dunkerque.
lax, n.3 This lax from 1951 is the abbreviation for the sport of lacrosse.
Maalox, n. While the origin of the brand name of the antacid is not definitively recorded, it’s probably a combination of ma- “magnesium” + -al- “aluminum” + -ox “hydroxide.”
manga, n.2 Coined in the late-eighteenth century, in the 1920s the name for the Japanese drawing style began to be applied to cartoons and comic books in this style. And by the 1950s, manga had made the jump from Japanese to English.
missile man, n. What drones are to the military of today, missiles were in the 1950s, and missile men were the soldiers and airman who maintained and launched them.
motocross, n. I was surprised to find that motocross is a borrowing from French. The French word appears by 1949, the English by 1951.
Nashville, adj. and n. The name of the city has been used to denote the commercialized style of country music since at least 1951.
neato, adj. (and int.) Like any slang term of this nature, antedates are sure to be found. And even then, we can be assured that it was in oral use for some time before being written down.
need-to-know, adj. and n. With the Cold War ramping up, the U. S. government started creating a whole vocabulary built around classified material.
nerd, n. The slang term is found in print from 1951. The origin is uncertain, but signs point to the 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss, which uses nerd as the name of a creature, as its inspiration. Another possibility is that nerd comes from the name of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.
Nielsen, n. Arthur Charles Nielsen implements his system for rating the popularity of television shows in 1951.
paralegal, adj. and n. In 1951, paralegal referred to auxiliary aspects of legal work. By the late 1960s the word was being used as a noun for a lawyer’s assistant. The para- “beside” is from Greek.
paramedic, n.1 This type of paramedic uses an entirely different meaning of para-; this time from parachute. In 1951 a paramedic is a person who was air-dropped to provide medical aid. Paramedic, n.2, like the aforementioned paralegal, is a medical assistant, and that term dates from 1966, although the adjective paramedical can be found as far back as 1921.
plateau, v. The noun is much older, but the verb to plateau is only recorded from 1951.
punctus elevatus, n. (and punctus versus, n.) The names for these medieval punctuation marks are much older in Latin, but they didn’t start appearing in English-language works about paleography until the 1950s.
red-dogging, n. (and adj.) The American football term for rushing the quarterback makes its appearance. The noun and verb red dog, however, have citations from 1950. The more common blitz doesn’t occur on the football field until the mid-1960s.
Rolodex, n. The name for the rotating spindle that holds address cards is trademarked in 1951. The product became so ubiquitous that it is still in use in this digital age to refer to a file of business contacts.
Sarin, n. The name of the chemical nerve agent, invented in Germany during the war, makes its way into the unclassified English-speaking world.
Scientology, n. L. Ron Hubbard founded his religion in 1951.
Securitate, n. The Direcţia Generală a Securităţii Poporului or Securitate for short was the Romanian secret police when that nation was under Communist rule. Established in 1948, the name of the organization started appearing in English-language newspapers a few years later.
sexcapade, n. This is such an obvious play on words, I’m surprised it didn’t appear earlier.
show boat, v. The slang verb meaning “to show off, act ostentatiously” makes its debut.
Soman, n. Another German nerve agent.
splitsville, n. and adj. In post-war America, divorces were becoming easier to get, and more couples were moving to Splitsville.
stroppy, adj. Of uncertain origin, but perhaps an alteration of obstreperous, this adjective is found from 1951.
Tabun, n. And a third German nerve agent.
triffid, n. John Wyndham wrote his science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids in 1951.
Vegan, n.2 and adj. No, this isn’t the strict vegetarian; that word is from 1944. The 1951 Vegan is an alien from a planet orbiting the star Vega.
whirlybird, n. The term for a helicopter comes out of soldier’s slang in Korea.
Yupik, n. and adj. Linguists start to write about the Yupik language in 1951.
These words are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, based on that dictionary’s earliest citation for that word. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the word was coined in the given year; it only means that is the earliest date the big dictionary has for the word. In many cases, these words can and have been antedated. My selection is not scientific or systematic; it is based on what I think is interesting; sometimes they are words that appear earlier or later than I would have thought; others have a particular historical affiliation for that year or represent some historical trend; and others are just odd words. I’m avoiding back-formations and variations on existing words. Again, be warned that the coining of a word does not necessarily coincide with the invention of a concept. Often, there will be older words that express the same sense.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton