1952 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 366 words with first citations from 1952. In that year, R and D produced erythromycin, tetracycline, Mylar, and Xerox machines; soldiers on R and R from Korea played pachinko in Tokyo; people worried about those darn kids, who were forming a Generation X or a beat generation; Interpol, Anzus, scuba, and other bafflegab made its way into English, and automated and computerized information technology threatened to change the way we lived.

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Events of 1952:

  • January: The Today Show premieres on NBC Television.
  • February: Queen Elizabeth II ascends to the throne with the death of her father, George VI; the United Kingdom joins the nuclear club.
  • April: The first B-52 bomber takes to the skies; the Treaty of San Francisco officially ends the war with, and occupation of, Japan; Lever House opens its doors, the first curtain-wall, glass and steel skyscraper in New York City.
  • May: Passenger jet service begins between London and Johannesburg; educator Maria Montessori dies.
  • June: Philosopher John Dewey dies.
  • July: The S. S. United States, one of last luxury liners built, makes its maiden voyage across the Atlantic; East Germany forms an army; Argentinean political leader Eva Perón dies.
  • August: Hussein ascends to the throne in Jordan.
  • September: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) begins television broadcasts; C. Walton Lilliehei and F. John Lewis perform the first successful open-heart surgery at the University of Minnesota; ceasefire negotiations in Korea are postponed; writer George Santayana dies.
  • October: Actor Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar, dies.
  • November: The United States tests the first hydrogen bomb; Dwight D. Eisenhower is elected U. S. president; Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap debuts and becomes the longest, continuously running play in history (it is still being performed); Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, dies.
  • December: The New York Daily News carries the story that Christine née George Jorgensen is the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery (the claim is not correct, she was not the first); the first successful surgical separation of conjoined twins takes place.

The words of 1952:

Anzus, n. The Cold War would create a booming business for acronyms. ANZUS stands for the Australia, New Zealand, and United States defense alliance.

automated, adj. There are lots of older words based on automate, including an earlier adjective automatized, but the adjectival automated is surprisingly recent.

bafflegab, n. Bafflegab is unclear, official jargon. The first citation in the OED credits Milton A. Smith of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce with coining the word. Smith defined it as, “Multiloquence characterised by a consummate interfusion of circumlocution [...] and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilised for promulgations implementing procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.” (The citation is from the British Daily Telegraph, in case you’re wondering why an American is using British spelling.)

beat generation, n. Jack Kerouac talked of the beat generation several years before this, but the phrase first appears in print in a 1952 New York Times article. It is generally thought to be from the sense of beat meaning worn out, exhausted, but in 1958 Kerouac claimed he had beatitude in mind when he coined it.

biocomputer, n. Envisioned in 1952, computers with biological components are only now starting to become a reality, and then only as experimental curiosities.

computerized, adj. Unlike automated, this one seems right for 1952.

decal, n. The clipping of decalcomania appears as the name for the process of transferring an image onto an object.

dingleberry, n. The sense of dingleberry recorded in 1952 is that of a cranberry, although the Dictionary of American Regional English has a citation from 1923 in this sense. The slang sense of a dried ball of fecal matter is recorded from 1953 in the OED, but from 1938 in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. (In case you’re wondering why I include words for which I know of older citations, it’s so that I can come back and revise the lists, placing the words in the appropriate year.)

do-it-yourself, n. Throughout most of history people have been doing it for themselves, but it took recognition of a marketing niche for this retronym to catch on.

don, n.3 The term for a mob boss is first recorded in 1952. Don is from the Italian title of respect.

down-beat, adj. Perhaps Kerouac was influenced by this adjective, which was floating about the language at the time. The musical noun is older, dating to the nineteenth century.

droid, n. No, George Lucas didn’t coin this one, although he assuredly popularized it.

dystopia, n. The adjective dystopian appears in the nineteenth century, but the noun comes later.

erythromycin, n. The discovery of the antibiotic was announced in 1952.

Generation X, n. In 1952, Generation X referred to a lost generation, and in particular to those growing up at that time. It wasn’t until the late-1970s that the term began to be applied in the now more familiar context of the generation that would come of age in the 1980s and 1990s.

global warming, n. Scientists have been gathering data and cautioning us about the dangers of global warming for longer than you might think.

information technology, n. Another timely addition to the language.

Interpol, n. The International Criminal Police Organization was founded in 1923, but the clipped Interpol didn’t appear until this year.

Jeeves, n. P. G. Wodehouse created the character of valet Reginald Jeeves in 1915, but it took until the 1950s for the name to become synonymous with the perfect valet.

jock, n.5 In 1952, jock was simply a clipped form of jock-strap. By 1963, American Speech records the word used in the metonymic sense of an athlete.

Mylar, n. The polyester film makes its appearance in 1952.

neocolonialism, n. Although the European powers were abandoning direct control of their colonies in the post-war era, they were not relinquishing all influence.

no-talent, adj. and n. The first citation in the OED is by Kurt Vonnegut. I wouldn’t be surprised if this could be antedated by a year or two.

over-the-transom, adj. and adv. This one probably takes some explanation as transom windows are a rarity in today’s architecture. Transom is another name for a lintel, or the beam across the top of a door or window. In older buildings, there would frequently be a window above the door, a transom window. Something that is over-the-transom is unsolicited, unasked for, like a manuscript thrown into a publisher’s office at night through the transom window.

pachinko, n. The Japanese pinball game started to be played in the late-1940s and was being discussed in English-language texts within a few years. In Japanese, there is an older form of upright pinball called gachanko which dates in that language to 1926 (and which was interestingly imported into Japan from the United States, where it had been known as Corinthian bagatelle). The -ko is a diminutive suffix, and the pachin- (and gachan-) are echoic of the bouncing metal balls, not unlike the English ka-ching.

R and D, n. The clipping of research and development makes its debut.

R and R, n. This military slang term stands for rest and, variously, recreation, relaxation, or recuperation. I would have thought it dated back to World War II, but evidently it’s Korean War vintage.

scuba, n. One of the classic examples of acronyms. I think it’s illegal for dictionaries to define acronym without citing scuba as an example. It stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

split-level, adj. The architectural style gets a name.

tetracycline, n. In case you hadn’t realized it yet, the 1950s were the golden age of antibiotic development.

toke, v. But antibiotics weren’t the only drugs consumed in the 1950s. The origin of the verb to toke is unknown, but it’s always been associated with marijuana.

wick, v.3 This sense of the verb to wick refers to the movement of liquid via capillary action through a textile fiber. Wicking can be good or bad, depending if you want to move perspiration away from the skin or prevent rain from reaching it.

wok, n. Woks made their way from Cantonese cookery into English around this time.

Xerox, n. The Haloid Company trademarked this name for its photocopiers in 1952. The company would later change its name to match its biggest product.

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.

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