1955 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 414 words with first citations from 1955. In that year, information science, artificial intelligence, and computer games made their appearance; the humble veggie grew into big agribusiness; cigarettes came in flip-top boxes and phones came in hands-free models; no-neck badasses practiced karate; and sci-fi took us off-world.

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Events of 1955:

  • January: Automaker Auguste Duesenberg dies.
  • February: Ray Kroc opens his first McDonald’s franchise, the ninth restaurant in the chain; CENTO, the Central Treaty Organization in Southwest Asia and SEATO, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization are founded; U. S. military advisors are deployed to South Vietnam.
  • March: Bacteriologist Alexander Fleming and saxophonist Charlie Parker die.
  • April: Richard J. Daley is elected mayor of Chicago for the first time; Imre Nagy is ousted as prime minister of Hungary for being too moderate; Albert Einstein dies.
  • May: The Warsaw Pact is signed; West Germany is declared “fully sovereign” and joins NATO; the last elevated train in Manhattan goes out of service.
  • June: The quiz show The $64,000 Question debuts on CBS-TV; Disney’s Lady and the Tramp premieres.
  • July: Disneyland opens its doors in Anaheim, California.
  • August: Soviet occupation forces leave Austria; the first edition of The Guinness Book of Records is published; 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till is murdered for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi; poet Wallace Stevens, novelist Thomas Mann, and actor Carmen Miranda die.
  • September: Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is published; Juan Peron, president of Argentina, is ousted in a coup; actor James Dean dies in an automobile accident.
  • October: The Mickey Mouse Club debuts on ABC-TV; the Brooklyn Dodgers achieve their first and only World Series victory.
  • November: Segregation of interstate buses and trains ends in the United States.
  • December: The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merge to form the AFL-CIO; General Motors is the first U. S. corporation to make an annual profit of $1 billion.

The words of 1955:

aerospace, n. As planes flew ever higher, the boundary between aviation and space flight started disappearing.

agribusiness, n. By 1955, farms were becoming big business.

alphanumeric, adj. and n. Computers created the necessity for distinguishing this subset of type characters.

artificial intelligence, n. Computers were getting smarter in 1955, and computer scientists began wondering about their potential for independent thought.

Baath, n. The pan-Arab socialist political movement had begun in Syria in 1943, but it took a decade for Western media to notice. (Languagehat has found antedates from at least 1954.)

badass, adj. and n. In 1955, one could not only be tough, one could be badass.

ball, v.4 This sense of to ball means to engage in sexual intercourse. It may be from the sense of to have a ball meaning “to enjoy oneself.”

benny, n.2 Benzedrine was a popular drug of the day.

body scan, n. The Transportation Security Agency may have just discovered them, but body scans have been around for a while.

computer game, n. Perhaps one reason we haven’t gotten very far with artificial intelligence is that in the same year computer scientists also discovered the time sink of computer games.

counter-intuitive, adj. The first citation of this word in the OED is by linguist Noam Chomsky.

dee-jay, n. As popular music grew into a really big business, disk jockeys started appearing all over.

disinformation, n. That the origins of this word should be hidden shouldn’t be a surprise. Disinformation is from the world of propaganda, but exactly where is uncertain. It could be from the Russian dezinformacija, which is recorded from 1949, or perhaps from the French désinformation, which is more recent from 1954.

fedayeen, n. From the Arabic for “one who undertakes perilous adventures,” the name began to be applied to Palestinian guerrilla fighters in the mid-1950s.

flip-top, adj. Marlboro cigarettes introduced the flip-top box in 1955.

hands-free, adj. Yes, hands-free phones were available in 1955.

home center, n. As were big-box hardware stores.

hyperdrive, n. But faster-than-light travel was still imaginary. The OED has hyperdrive from 1955, but the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction has a 1949 citation.

information science, n. In 1955, information science was pretty much restricted to what librarians do. In later years, the definition expanded to include computer science, communications, and cognition.

inner child, n. The pop psychology term appears at about this time.

karate, n. And the Japanese martial art appears in the West. (Languagehat has antedated the word to at least 1947.)

mind-boggling, adj. The phrase the mind boggles appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century, but the adjectival form crops up in 1955.

monkey bars, n. The name for the piece of playground apparatus makes its debut.

Nicad, n. As does this name for nickel-cadmium batteries, which had been around since the beginning of the century.

no-neck, adj. and n. When Tennessee Williams used no-neck monsters in his 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he was referring to children. More usually the term is applied to large, muscular men.

off-world, adv., adj., and n. Another science fiction term from this year.

panini, n. The bread, panino in the Italian singular, makes its appearance on English-language menus. In English, the plural panini is often construed as singular, thus we also have paninis.

Parkinson’s law, n. In 1955 Cyril Northcote Parkinson formulated his law that says work will expand to fill available time.

pax atomica, n. Modeled after the Pax Romana of ancient times, this term denotes the idea that nuclear weapons made war between the major powers unthinkable.

prednisone, n. The name for the commonly prescribed steroid was coined in 1955.

Rasta, adj. and n.2 This clipping of Rastafarian appears in 1955. But there are earlier uses of Rasta as a short form of the name Ras Tafari, another name for Haile Selassie, going back to 1933.

samlor, n. The Thai term for a three-wheeled motorized vehicle, typically used as a taxi on the streets of Bangkok, scoots its way into English.

samosa, n. The Indian pastry is served up.

sci-fi, n. The clipping of science fiction dates to 1955.

tabbouleh, n. Another dish makes its debut, this time the word is from Arabic.

tikka, n. This word for spiced meat and vegetables cooked on a skewer is from Hindi.

vegie, n. (also veggie, n.) The abbreviation of vegetable is recorded, but it probably predates 1955 by some bit.

Warsaw, n.2 The Warsaw Pact, the Communist counterpart to NATO, was formed in May 1955.

weirdo, n. Slang dictionaries start recording this in 1955. An older form with the same meaning is weirdie, which dates to the late nineteenth century.

zinger, n. The slang term for something uncommonly good makes its appearance.

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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