1950 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 426 words with first citations from 1950. In that year, the world of religion brought us santeria, dianetics, ayatollahs, and Bat Mitzvahs; while the world of chemistry responded with LSD; new foodstuffs included filo, scallopini, calzones, and mai tais, but consuming too much of these could cause you to chunder; new nuclear technologies brought us yellowcake, although you wouldn’t want to eat it, and sometimes caused engineers to scram, lest a kiloton-sized explosion occur; and physicists gave a funny name to an old idea, the big bang.

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Events of 1950:

  • January: U. S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivers his “perimeter speech” outlining the U. S. security guarantees to other nations, failing to mention South Korea; thieves steal $2 million from a Brinks armored car in Boston, Massachusetts; Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury; U. S. President Harry Truman orders the development of the hydrogen bomb; writer George Orwell dies.
  • February: The first credit card transaction is made at Major’s Cabin Grill in New York City using a Diner’s Club charge card; U. S. Senator Joseph McCarthy claims there are 205 Communists working in the State Department; Disney’s Cinderella is released.
  • March: Klaus Fuchs is convicted of giving nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union; writer Edgar Rice Burroughs dies
  • April: The top-secret NSC-68 report is issued, outlining the U. S. strategy for containment of the Soviet Union, it will guide U. S. foreign policy for the next two decades; Jordan annexes the West Bank; composer Kurt Weill and dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky die.
  • May: The U. S. Senate Kefauver Committee investigations into organized crime begin.
  • June: North Korea invades South Korea.
  • August: Pope Pius XII says that Darwin’s theory of natural selection does not contradict Roman Catholic doctrine.
  • September: Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey comic strip begins publication; Truth or Consequences makes the transition from radio to television; U. N. troops under command of U. S. General Douglas MacArthur land at Inchon, driving North Korean troops back over the 38th Parallel.
  • October: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip begins publication; China invades Tibet; the U. S. FCC issues the first license to broadcast color television; a second, more successful, Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens; Chinese troops begin to infiltrate into North Korea; writer Edna St. Vincent Millay and actor Al Jolson die.
  • November: USAF pilot Lt. Russell Brown shoots down two North Korean MiGs in the first jet-to-jet dogfight in history; Chinese troops launch a surprise counteroffensive in Korea, driving U. N. troops back south of the 38th Parallel; writer George Bernard Shaw dies.

The words of 1950:

airdate, n. The television jargon word makes its appearance in 1950.

apparat, n. The Russians got this word from German, which they used to denote the Communist Party infrastructure. English borrowed apparat from Russian in 1950. [Languagehat has antedated apparat to 1946.]

aqualung, n. The diving apparatus, not apparat, was invented in 1942–43 by Émile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. By 1950, the name aqualung had been applied to it in English-language publications.

ayatollah, n. The honorific for an Iranian Shiite religious leader starts appearing in English-language writings about Iran in 1950. The word is from Farsi, and ultimately the Arabic ‘ayatu-llah “miraculous sign of God.” [Languagehat has antedated ayatollah to 1949.]

ball-breaker, n. The slang term makes its appearance in the sense of an arduous task or a hard taskmaster. The sense of a domineering woman doesn’t make its appearance until the 1960s.

bar-hopping, n. Brits pub-crawl, but Americans bar-hop.

Bat Mitzvah, n. The OED records this term for a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age ceremony from 1950, although non-Orthodox Jews had been celebrating them for decades prior to this citation. Bat Mitzvah is Hebrew for “daughter of commandment” and is analogous to the male Bar Mitzvah.

batshit, n. and adj. The OED records this slang word from 1950, but like most slang terms it probably was circulating for some time prior to this.

big bang, n. This term is a good example of the OED’s dating methodology. The OED relies on written (and now electronic) sources almost exclusively. The dictionary doesn’t for example, take citations from television, radio, or film unless there is a written script or transcript, and then gives the date of the script, not the broadcast or recording. Astronomer Fred Hoyle first used big bang on a scripted radio broadcast in March 1949. (Hoyle was a proponent of the steady-state theory of cosmology and coined the term to deprecate the competing theory, but the term was embraced by the opposition.) The script for this broadcast was never published. But Hoyle repeated the term in another broadcast in 1950, for which the script is available; hence the OED gives big bang a date of 1950, not 1949. The actual theory of an expanding universe, as opposed to the name big bang, dates to 1927, when Georges Lemaître first promulgated it.

bonsai, n. The name for the Japanese horticultural technique was borrowed in 1950. Its literal meaning in Japanese is “plantings in tray.” [Languagehat has antedated bonsai to 1922.]

brainwashing, n. (also brainwash, n.) This origin of this noun is often associated with Chinese prisoner-of-war interrogation techniques during the Korean War, but the written record of the word predates that war by a few months. (There are also isolated and facetious examples of brainwashing, undoubtedly independent coinages, from the nineteenth century.)

calzone, n. This OED entry is nice illustration of the problems with deciding when a word has become assimilated into the language. The OED has a 1944 citation of calzone a la napoletana, which it places in brackets, indicating that it is not quite an English use of the word. Then from 1950 the dictionary has and entry that reads Neapolitan Stuffed Calzone, which it considers an English use.

chunder, v. The Australian slang verb for vomit makes its appearance.

cremains, n. The euphemistic blend appears.

decongestant, adj. and n. This word appears first as an adjective in 1950. Then in 1952 the U. S. Patent Office started classifying drugs as decongestants.

dianetics, n. L. Ron Hubbard published his book of this title in 1950 and began peddling the snake oil and scams of Scientology. The word is an alteration of the seventeenth-century dianoetic, from Greek roots meaning “intellectual, pertaining to thought.”

double-blind, adj. The gold standard of scientific research got its name in 1950. Blind had been in use since 1937 to refer to experiments where both the tester and the subject are unaware of information that could bias the results. But in this year researchers began to use double-blind to refer to this condition.

entry level, n. and adj. The human resources jargon term gets its start in this year.

ergonomics, n. While ergonomics has always referred to the study of humans and their work environments (the Greek ἔργον or ergon means “work"), the goal of the discipline has shifted over the decades. In 1950, the goal of ergonomics was primarily to improve workplace efficiency and productivity, while now the goal is primarily to prevent workplace injury, with a side benefit of increased productivity.

fall-out, n. The term for the residue of a nuclear explosion appears in 1950.

filo, n. The name for the type of pastry dough makes its English-language appearance. The word is often spelled phyllo.

house-sitter, n. Modeled after baby-sitter and dog-sitter, this word has its debut.

kiloton, n. Nuclear weapons were so devastating that an entirely new vocabulary had to be developed to describe their effects. A kiloton is equivalent to one thousand tons of TNT. Megaton, a million tons, would come along by 1952.

Lab, n.4 This clipping of Labrador retriever was inevitable.

LSD, n.2 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide in 1938. By 1947, the compound was being abbreviated as LSD in German-language journals, for lysergsäure-diäthylamid, and a few years later it jumped into English.

mai tai, n. The name of this drink appears on a 1950 menu for the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco. The name is probably from the Tahitian for “good, pleasant.” In the 1972 edition of his Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, Victor J. Bergeron, founder of the restaurant chain, claims to have coined the name for the drink in 1944, after a friend drank one and pronounced “Mai Tai—Roa Aé” or “Out of this world—the best.” But the drink doesn’t appear in the 1947 edition of Bergeron’s guide, so there is some question as to the veracity of the story.

maven, n. This word for “expert, connoisseur, aficionado” is from the Yiddish meyvn, and ultimately the Hebrew mebin.

microfiche, n. For the young ‘uns who don’t remember microfiches, they were pieces of film, about the size of an index card, on which were stored images of pages of documents, requiring a special device for magnifying and reading them. The word is from micro + fiche, the French for “slip of paper.” Despite the French root, microfiche appears first in English, not making its French debut until 1953.

mil-spec, n. This term is U. S. Defense Department jargon for military specification, a detailed list of standards that equipment must meet before being procured by the government.

Moomin, n. Elizabeth Portch’s English translations of Tove Jansson’s stories about Moomins or Moomintrolls (Mumintroll in the original Swedish), pudgy creatures who inhabited the forests of Finland were a favorite of mine as a child. Jansson started writing the stories in Swedish in 1945. Portch’s translations were published beginning in 1950.

moving target, n. Literal uses of the phrase are much, much older, but the figurative idiom of a constantly shifting goal only dates to 1950.

multimedia, n. This word was invented by advertising execs in 1950. Sometimes coinages fill a need.

napalm, v. The noun dates to 1942, which makes sense. But the verb didn’t arise until 1950 and the next war. Napalm is a blend of napthenate + palmitate, from the aluminum salts of naphthenic acids and coconut oil that is used to thicken the gasoline.

Orwellian, adj. and n. The dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published the previous year and gave rise to this eponymic adjective.

peace marcher, n. Peace march has undergone a shift in meaning over the centuries. It dates to 1800 in the sense of a musical composition to signify the conclusion of a war. By the turn of the twentieth century the term was used to denote a military march undertaken in peacetime or to celebrate the end of hostilities. But in 1950 with the war in Korea raging and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming, peace marcher appears, denoting a demonstrator who protests a war.

ponytail, n. The name of the hairstyle makes a singular appearance in Anthony Trolliope’s 1873 The Eustace Diamonds as a play on the then name for the style horse’s tail. But ponytail didn’t catch on until 1950s America.

putz, v. This verb means “to potter about, to engage in minor activities and chores.” The origin is somewhat uncertain as it appears to be the result of conflation of a number of words. It is most likely an alteration of futz, a 1930s slang verb meaning “to mess about, fool around.” But may also be from the German putzen “to clean.” It is also likely influenced by the Yiddish putz “penis, fool, moron.”

redshirt, v. In American collegiate sports parlance to redshirt is to refrain from competing in a sport, only attending practice, in order to extend one’s eligibility for competition for another year. It’s typically done by an athlete who needs more time to develop skills or strength or recover from an injury. The verb comes from the red jerseys typically worn by such athletes on the practice field and dates to 1950.

Santeria, n. The name of the African-Cuban religion worked its way into English in 1950. Santeria is Spanish, literally meaning “holiness, sanctity.”

scallopini, n. From the Italian for “little shells,” scallopini is a dish of sautéed or fried thin slices of meat, usually veal. The first citation in the OED is from Ernest Hemingway’s 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees.

Scrabble, n.2 The word game was dubbed Scrabble in 1948, but in 1950 the owner James Brunot filed for a U. S. trademark. The name is based on the sixteenth-century verb meaning “to scribble, scrawl"or to “scramble, struggle.”

scram, v.3 Like most slang terms, the origin of this bit of nuclear industry slang verb meaning “to make an emergency shutdown of a reactor” is not known for sure, but it probably comes from the older slang verb meaning “to flee.”

shit-kicker, n. There are two distinct meanings for this noun depending on where in the world you are. In Australia, shit-kicker has denoted “a manual or unskilled laborer” since 1950. In 1954, the term popped up in the U. S. with the meaning of “a ruffian or troublemaker,” and by the 1960s had also acquired the meaning of “a country bumpkin, a hick.”

Styrofoam, n. Dow Chemical filed for a trademark on the foam plastic in 1950.

telecon, n. In 1950, the tele- prefix stood for teletype. Later, the meaning shifted to telephone. The -con is for conference, of course.

Vespa, n. The maker of the Italian motor scooters filed for a British trademark in 1950.

Vibram, n. The proprietary name for molded rubber soles originally used in rock climbing appears in a 1950 translation of a Swiss mountaineering guide.

work station, n. In 1950, this term designated the place a worker occupied on an assembly line. It wouldn’t be until 1977 that the term would be applied to a computer terminal.

yellowcake, n. The name of uranium oxide, so called because of its appearance, dates to 1950.

zonk, v. The slang verb meaning “to hit, strike” dates to 1950. The interjection and noun appear a year year earlier.

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. For each year, I try to select twenty-six words, one for each letter of the alphabet. But in some cases I’ve got more than one for a particular letter, in others none. 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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