1961 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 501 words with first citations from 1961. In that year, we had moon shots, microwaves, and Weight Watchers, but they weren’t what you might think; an Italian film gave us the dolce vita and paparazzi; a bratty new dictionary dared to record words like spritzer; advances in technology forced us to reconsider old machines, giving us the reel-to-reel tape recorder and letting us keyboard things into a computer; and for the new astronauts, everything was A-OK.

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Events of 1961:

  • January: The United States severs diplomatic relations with Cuba; newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy conducts the first televised, live, presidential news conference; Ham the chimp becomes the first American in space; Patrice Lumumba is executed; physicist Erwin Schrödinger and writer Dashiell Hammett die.
  • February: Portugal’s African colonies begin their war for independence, which will last fourteen years; The Beatles perform at the Cavern Club;.
  • March: The U. S. Peace Corps is created.
  • April: Yuri Gagarin launches into space aboard Vostok-1; anti-Castro forces attempt an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
  • May: Freedom riders begin to test the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation of interstate transit is unconstitutional; Alan Shepard becomes the second human in space; President Kennedy announces the plan to send a human to the moon by the decade’s end; actor Gary Cooper dies.
  • June: Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev defects while touring France with the Kirov Ballet; Canada’s New Democratic Party is founded; Iraq announces plans to annex Kuwait, and British troops are deployed to prevent it; psychologist Carl Jung dies.
  • July: Writer Ernest Hemingway and baseballer Ty Cobb die.
  • August: The Six Flags Over Texas theme park opens outside of Dallas; the Berlin Wall is constructed.
  • September: Merriam-Webster’s controversial Third New International Dictionary is published; Architect Eero Saarinen and U. N. Secretary General Dag Hammarsjköld die.
  • October: Roger Maris hits his sixty-first home run of the season, beating Babe Ruth’s 1927 record; the Soviet Union detonates a 58-megaton nuclear weapon, the largest ever; Stalin’s body is removed from Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow.
  • November: Joseph Heller publishes Catch-22; the United States deploys 18,000 military advisors to Vietnam.
  • December: Adolph Eichmann is sentenced to death for crimes against humanity; Portugal transfers Goa to India.

The words of 1961:

A-OK, adj. and adv. The space age variant of the old standard makes its appearance.

born-again, adj. That “old-time” religion really isn’t. The theological concept of being recreated in Christ is old, so much so that born-again Christian is theologically redundant. But the use of the adjectival phrase to denote an evangelical Christian only dates to the 1960s.

bratty, adj. This adjective is first recorded in Merriam-Webster’s 1961 Third New International Dictionary, which is kind of fitting as many considered that dictionary to be a bratty upstart.

dial-up, adj. and n. Starting in 1961, it was possible to connect to a computer network via telephone.

docudrama, n. A nice bit of television jargon makes its way into the mainstream.

dolce vita, n. Frederico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita was first screened in 1960, and by the next year dolce vita, Italian for “sweet life,” had made its way into English.

Down, n.4 English physician John Langdon Down first categorized the genetic disability in 1862, calling it mongolism. But after a century, that term had come to be seen as offensive, and the condition was renamed Down syndrome.

Eurocrat, n. A blend of European and bureaucrat, this word’s early appearance shows that perceptions of those who manage the bureaucracy in Brussels haven’t changed much.

fab, adj. A rather obvious clipping of fabulous.

grok, v. This word, from the Martian meaning to understand something or someone intuitively, makes its English language debut in Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

keyboard, v. The advent of computers meant that to type wasn’t strictly accurate anymore.

make-or-break, adj. and n. This phrase is older as a verb. The alliterative to make or mar dates to the mid-fifteenth century, and the rhyming to make or break starts to replace it in the late-eighteenth century. But the adjectival use, as in make-or-break attempt, doesn’t make it until the 1960s.

mic, n.2 There is an ongoing dispute among audiophiles over whether the abbreviation for microphone should be spelled mike or mic. Mike is the older form, dating to the 1920s. Mic makes its appearance by 1961.

microwave, v. The noun is older, of course. In 1961 the verb to microwave meant “to send signals using microwave frequencies.” The use of the verb meaning “to cook food in a microwave oven” dates to the mid-1970s.

moon shot, n.2 One might think, “1961, moon shot;” this word relates to the space program as this is the year that President Kennedy set out the great challenge to go to moon by the decade’s end, but it doesn’t, at least not directly. The space term dates to 1949. This moon shot is baseball jargon for a ball hit to a great height. But it’s still 1961, so the baseball usage could be a figurative use of the space term, but the type of hit was made famous by L. A. Dodger Wally Moon. Undoubtedly the coinage is something of a double entendre, combining Moon’s name with the astronautic term, but it shows that in etymology the obvious answer isn’t always the right one.

neurotransmitter, n. The class of chemical that carries nerve impulses across the synapses got its name in this year.

New Democrat, n. The Canadian political party was established in 1961.

nocebo, n. A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo, a detrimental effect caused by psychological or psychosomatic factors. Nocebo is Latin for “I will harm.”

no-win, adj. Game theory scores a victory by subtly affecting the language with no-win situations.

operating system, n. The computing term boots up for the first time.

paparazzo, n. (and adj.) Another La Dolce Vita word. Paparazzo is the name of a photographer in the film. The word is perhaps more familiar in its plural, paparazzi.

paraquat, n. The class of herbicide gained notoriety in the late 1970s when it was discovered that the U. S. government was spraying paraquat on the Mexican marijuana fields, potentially leading to various negative health effects for those that smoked the pot. But the chemical had been around since 1961.

photorealism, n. The artistic term dates to 1961.

plea bargain, n. The late date of this one surprised me until I realized that the form plea bargaining is older, dating to 1940. The verb to plea bargain comes later and is in place by 1973.

power broker, n. T. H. White’s 1961 book The Making of the President, 1960 was an influential book in many ways, but lexically it contains the first known use of power broker.

psyched, adj. Psyched out appears in 1961. Psyched up is in place a couple of years later.

read-only, adj. Another computer term makes its debut.

reel-to-reel, adj. and n. In 1958 RCA Victor introduced the first audio cassette and a need for a retronym for the older style of tape recorders was needed. Hence reel-to-reel.

shitcan, v. The verb meaning “to dispose of something, to fire someone” makes a 1961 appearance, but the noun shitcan, referring to a waste basket, goes back to 1948.

skyjack, v. (and skyjacker, n.) The name for an aerial hijacking takes off.

spritzer, n. This name for a mixture of wine and soda water is first recorded in Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

teriyaki, n. The dish of marinated fish or meat makes its way from Japan. [Languagehat has antedated this one to the early twentieth century.]

trade-off, n. This word for compromise looks like it originally arose in engineering circles. The first citation in the OED is in a comparison over various hydrofoil and hovercraft propulsion systems.

Valium, n. Hoffmann-La Roche trademarked this name for diazepam in 1961. The anti-anxiety drug has been calming folks ever since.

Weight Watcher, n. The organization Weight Watchers International wouldn’t be founded until two years later, but in 1961 the Low Calorie Candy Company filed for a U. S. trademark on Weight Watcher for its line of desserts.

woody, n. This one is surfer slang for a station wagon (i.e., estate car) with wooden-paneled sides.

Words in the OED that are first recorded in Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary include:

anorectic, n.; attendee, n.; blondish, adj.; bratty, adj.; chemoautotrophically, adv.; conflictual, adj.; copyboard, n.; crispen, v.; cyanogenic, adj.; ecumenics, n.; eukaryote, n.; jeepney, n.; kidnap, n.; macerate, n.; macroglial, adj.; mascara, v.; mashgiach, n.; megadonty, n.; memo, v.; microwave, v.; misstrike, n.; Nanking, n.; neg, adj.2; neuropilar, adj.; panaché. adj. (and n.2); sculpted, adj.; self-blimped, adj.; self-rescuer, n.; semanticize, v.; sequicentenary, n.; skiable, adj.; sleep-in, n. and adj.; solderable, adj.; spritzer, n.; squadrol, n.; stat, n.2; Thailander, n.; thermoneutral, adj.; transvestic, adj.; tribalistic, adj.; trick, adj.2; triple-header, n.; unzipper, v.; vid, n.; wiener, n.; wheel and deal, v.; whichways, adv.

And most fittingly, the first recorded use of descriptivism, n. is in that dictionary.

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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