1953 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 413 words with first citations from 1953. In that year, there were many countdowns for missile launches, but those missiles usually crashed and burned; two banes of prescriptivism, to access and frenemy, were coined; crostini, tapas, and shawarma appeared on menus; both Medicare, a name for a government program that didn’t exist yet, and SMERSH, a name for one that no longer did, were created; and CinemaScope, post-production, and videotape were changing the way Hollywood made movies.

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Events of 1953:

  • January: In Paris, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot) is performed for the first time; Josip Broz Tito becomes president of Yugoslavia; Senator Joseph McCarthy becomes chair of the Committee on Government Operations, allowing him to launch his investigations of alleged Communists in the U. S. government; Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible opens on Broadway; musician Hank Williams dies.
  • February: Disney’s film Peter Pan premieres; James Watson and Francis Crick announce their discovery of the structure of DNA.
  • March: Jonas Salk announces his polio vaccine; Joseph Stalin and composer Sergei Prokofiev die.
  • April: Ian Fleming publishes his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
  • May: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are the first to summit Mt. Everest and descend safely.
  • June: Elizabeth II is crowned at Westminster Abbey; the first Chevrolet Corvette rolls off the assembly line; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed.
  • July: The Korean War ends with an armistice signed at Panmunjom.
  • August: The Soviet Union announces that it has a hydrogen bomb; the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran is overthrown with the assistance of the C. I. A.; Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.
  • September: R. E. M. sleep is discovered; Nikita Khrushchev becomes first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
  • October: Earl Warren becomes chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court; the first meeting of Narcotics Anonymous is held.
  • November: France grants Cambodia independence; poet Dylan Thomas and playwright Eugene O’Neill die.
  • December: Hugh Hefner publishes the first issue of Playboy magazine; the U. S. Federal Communications Commission approves the broadcast of color television.

The words of 1953:

access, v.2 The noun access was verbed in the 1950s. People still complain about it, but the usage is almost sixty years old. The older sense of the verb, access v.1, is a museum term meaning to acquire an object for the collection; it dates to the late nineteenth century and is from the noun accession, not access.

asswipe, n. The first citation of this insult is in Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March. It was undoubtedly in spoken use earlier.

bluesman, n. This term for a blues musician seems a bit late to me. [Languagehat has antedated it to 1952.]

bug, v.3 I’m not sure why the OED lists this one as bug and not bug out as all of its citations are of the phrasal verb. Bugging out is associated with the Korean War, in particular with the early days of 1950 when resistance to the initial North Korean attack collapsed and U. S. troops fled to the port of Pusan. And while the OED has the verb from 1953, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates it to 1950.

CinemaScope, n. A proprietary name for a wide-screen cinema format.

countdown, n. A nice example of a pre-Sputnik space term making its way into the language.

crash and burn, v. Hopefully not, but all too often in the 1950s, the other end of the countdown.

crostini, n. This Italian toasted bread makes its way into English cooking jargon.

drip-dry, v. Supposedly, many of the new synthetic fabrics would dry without wringing them out. It rarely worked out that way.

fly-by, n. Fly-bys could be dramatic way to drum up public support for Cold War defense spending.

frenemy, n. This word epitomizes the expression, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

HeLa, n.2 HeLa is the name given to a strain of cancerous epithelial cells maintained in serial in vitro culture since 1951. It is the oldest and most widely used human cell line in biomedical research. The name comes from the donor, Henrietta Lacks, a thirty-one-year-old, poor, African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in October 1951.

hippie, n. We associate hippies with the late 1960s, but the word goes back to 1953. This earlier use, however, is in the sense of “one trying to be hip, a hipster.” The long-haired, psychedelic-drug-using sense appears in the mid-1960s. And the Historical Dictionary of American Slang antedates the word to 1952.

hypo-allergenic, adj. Sometimes the epiphanies (small though they may be) you get studying word origins have nothing to do with linguistics. Until I looked into the origin of hypo-allergenic, I had no idea that there was a discipline of cosmetic chemistry. Of course, it’s obvious once you think about it. The cosmetics industry is big business and is largely based on chemistry. Anyway, hypo-allergenic first appears in the August 1953 issue of the Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemistry. (They even have journals.)

klatsch, n. English use of Kaffeeklatsch or coffee-klatsch dates to the late-nineteenth century, but the standalone klatsch “a small gathering” dates to 1953 and Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, where it is used to denote a gathering of witches: “There are accounts of similar klatches in Europe, where the daughters of the towns would assemble at night and [...] give themselves to love.” The 1956 published edition of the play italicizes the word, indicating that it is not fully assimilated into English, or perhaps that the Puritans of Salem would have thought it a foreign word. But the OED has this citation from 1967 from a book titled Kayaks to the Arctic, showing that by then klatsch was fully anglicized, could be applied to any ethnic group, and had dropped the German spelling: “So later, when the men returned and set up their camp we had them over for a klatch.”

Laetrile, n. Laetrile is often cited as the canonical example of medical quackery. This name for an alleged cancer-treating drug was trademarked in March 1953, but even by April studies were being published that Laetrile was ineffective in treating cancer, as well as being highly toxic. The name is a condensation of laevo-rotary-nitrile, referring to the molecule’s properties of polarizing light in a counterclockwise (left or laevo-) direction.

malathion, n. The insecticide was trademarked in 1953.

Medicare, n. The U. S. government program wouldn’t go into effect until 1965, but as early as 1953 politicians were talking about providing Medicare health insurance to citizens.

meta-analysis, n. This term got its start in philosophy, referring to the study of the underlying assumptions and basis of a particular theory. By 1976, meta-analysis had made the jump to statistics, where it referred to analysis of data gathered by a variety of independent studies on the same subject.

moose, n.3 This sense of moose is U. S. military slang for a Japanese or Korean wife or mistress of a serviceman. The word is from the Japanese musume “daughter, girl.” It’s use is mostly in historical contexts now.

nit-picking, n. Pedantic criticism is much older, but this name for it is only cited from 1953 in the OED.

ob-gyn, n. The abbreviation for obstetrics and gynecology starts appearing.

paint-by-numbers, adj. The craft kits featuring sketches with areas marked with numbers corresponding to the color paint to be used hit the market in the early 1950s. Over time, the term came to denote any process that is formulaic rather than creative.

palletize, v. Global trade boomed in the post-war world. The noun pallet had taken on the meaning of a platform on which to stack and move goods in the early 1920s, and by the early 1950s the noun was verbed into palletize.

post-production, n. Making movies grew more complex in the 1950s, and this term for the work done after primary photography was complete (e.g., editing, sound effects, and later visual effects) was created.

prescriptivism, n. Linguists put a name to the ancient phenomenon in 1953.

probiotic, adj.2 and n. In 1953, biologists used this term simply to denote substances or conditions that promoted the growth of microorganisms. It wasn’t until the 1970s that probiotic came to be used specifically to refer to altering the microflora in the human digestive system.

pussy-whipped, adj. This U. S. slang term referring to “a man dominated by a woman” dates to 1953, although the Middle English Dictionary records a use of cunte-betan to mean “impotent” from c. 1440. (It’s discoveries like this that made me a medievalist.)

shawarma, n. From the Syrian Arabic, this food starts appearing on American menus in the early 1950s.

SMERSH, n. This Russian acronym, СМЕРШ for Смерт Шпионам (Smert Shpionam, “death to spies"), makes its English debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel. The acronym is only partially fictional; SMERSH was the name of a Soviet wartime counterintelligence organization, but had been disbanded in 1946.

synchronicity, n. In 1953 Carl Jung gave this name to coincidental events.

tapa, n.2 Usually appearing in the plural, tapas made their way from Spain to the English-speaking world in the early 1950s.

Terran, adj. and n. A more formal science fiction term for “earthling,” the OED gives a first citation of Terran from 1953, although the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction has one from 1946.

U. F. O., n. Intended to be more scientifically rigorous and neutral than the somewhat older term flying saucer, U. F. O. has always connoted the idea of alien origin despite its literal meaning.

videotape, n. It existed in the early 1950s, but was the province of professionals.

wall-to-wall, adj. (n. and adv.) It’s no surprise that this term first referred to carpeting, but by the decade’s end it was being used to refer to other things that covered an entire room.

Yad Vashem, n. In 1953 the Israeli government established the organization to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. The name is Hebrew “a place/memorial and a name,” and is taken from Isaiah 56:5, “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name.”

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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