1954 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 362 words with first citations from 1954. In that year, the Cold War brought us hotlines, SEATO, and the Pathet Lao; old media began to contend with pay TV; Havarti was a new type of paneer available at the deli; cries of cowabunga and vavoom could be heard; and doomsayers warned of the dreaded lurgy.

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Events of 1954:

  • January: Marilyn Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio; the first nuclear submarine, the U. S. S. Nautilus is launched.
  • February: Mass vaccinations against polio begin; Gamel Abdel Nasser becomes premier of Egypt.
  • March: Four Puerto Rican nationalists open fire on the U. S. House of Representatives, wounding five representatives; the siege of Dien Bien Phu begins; the Toronto subway begins operation; Edward R. Murrow broadcasts criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy on NBC’s See It Now.
  • April: Bill Haley and the Comets record “Rock Around the Clock;” President Eisenhower gives the “domino theory” as justification for U. S. military intervention in Vietnam; film pioneer Auguste Lumière dies.
  • May: Sun Myung Moon founds the Unification Church; Roger Bannister runs a mile in less than four minutes; the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrenders to the Viet Minh; in Brown v. Board of Education, the U. S. Supreme Court declares that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
  • June: Joseph Welch, special counsel for the U. S. Army, strikes back at Senator McCarthy in a committee hearing, asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?; the words “under God” are added to the U. S. Pledge of Allegiance; a C. I. A.-sponsored coup overthrows the Arbenz government in Guatemala; the world’s first operational nuclear power plant, in Obninsk, the Soviet Union, begins generating electricity; mathematician Alan Turing commits suicide.
  • July: Britain ends food rationing, which had begun during World War II; the first Boeing 707 takes to the skies; Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni are the first to summit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is published; artist Frida Kahlo dies.
  • August: The First Indochina War ends with French withdrawal and the division of Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel; the first issue of Sports Illustrated hits the newsstands.
  • September: The last new episode of the radio series The Lone Ranger is broadcast; William Golding publishes The Lord of the Flies.
  • October: Texas Instruments puts the first transistor radio on sale; West Germany joins NATO.
  • November: Godzilla tramples Tokyo for the first time; the immigration station at Ellis Island, New York closes; the Dow-Jones Industrial Average finally exceeds the high it hit in 1929; artist Henri Matisse dies.
  • December: The U. S. Senate censures Joseph McCarthy; the first Burger King restaurant opens its doors in Miami; the world’s first kidney transplant is performed.

The words of 1954:

ABD, n. All But Dissertation. By this time next year I hope to have this status.

air-to-surface, adj. Military-speak for bomb-related things.

après-ski, n. The military has its jargon, and the winter resort industry has its.

asap, adv. (and adj.) This is another acronym, albeit an informal one, that comes out of the U. S. military.

black power, n. Like many terms associated with the social upheavals of the late-1960s, black power is found over a decade earlier.

bonobo, n. In 1953, primatologists were debating whether or not bonobos and chimpanzees constituted separate species. The OED gives the unhelpful etymology as from “an African language.”

boonies, n. Another U. S. military slang term, boonies is a clipping of boondocks and refers to a jungle or otherwise wild and uninhabited region.

bruschetta, n. The Italian appetizer of toasted bread, olive oil, and garlic (and sometimes chopped tomatoes and cheese) makes its way onto American menus.

chaat, n. This appetizer is from a bit further than Italy. Chaat is chopped and spiced fruit or vegetables, and the word is often used as a post-modifying adjective, as in aloo chaat, a chaat made from potatoes.

cha-cha, n. The dance hits ballroom floors in 1953.

cowabunga, int. The interjection predates Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by several decades. The first to apparently yell cowabunga is the character of Chief Thunderthud on the Howdy Dowdy television show. The origin is unknown, and it is likely simply an invention intended to sound Native American. The cry was picked up and perpetuated by the California surfing subculture.

deli, n. Slang dictionaries started picking up this clipping of delicatessen in 1954.

discotheque, n. The French word for a dance club worked its way into English in the early 1950s.

doo-doo, n. Educators took notice of this nursery euphemism in 1954.

doomsayer, n. This one sounds like it could have its origins in Old English, but doomsayer is not nearly so old.

FX, n. FX is older than I would have guessed, but once I read the origin, I’m surprised it’s not even older. The abbreviation, short for effects, is first used in reference to sound effects on radio shows. I had assumed it had its origin in Hollywood movies.

Havarti, n. The name of the Danish cheese makes its way across the water.

hexadecimal, adj. and n. Hexadecimal is a base sixteen numerical notation system. It’s widely used in computing.

hotline, n. The first hotline was between Washington and the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. It was hot because the line was always open, allowing for instant communication. In 1963, a hotline was established between Washington and Moscow to facilitate communications in case of a nuclear crisis. Also in 1963, the term began to be adopted by commercial entities offering fast communication between customers and the business.

lurgy, n. The dreaded lurgy was an infectious and nasty disease of non-specific symptoms featured on The Goon Show, a 1950s BBC Radio program starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe. The Goons may not have invented lurgy, however. Fever-lurden is an old name for laziness. Lurdan is a Middle English word for a bad or lazy person, and a fever-lurden is the supposed disease that makes them so. In Scots dialect it was known as fever-lurgy at least into the nineteenth century if not later. It is possible that the Goons were echoing this old and rare dialectal word.

market share, n. The business term is in place by 1954.

off-road, adj. and adv. This adjective began in reference to tanks and other military vehicles. By the late 1960s it was being applied to recreational driving.

old media, n. In 1954, the old media were newspapers and other print outlets. The new media, although that term wouldn’t appear until 1960, were radio and television; although by 1954 radio wasn’t all that new.

paneer, n. This word for “cheese” comes into English via the Urdu panir, but it found in several South Asian languages.

Paralympic, n. and adj. Sporting events for disabled persons, originally British war vets with spinal cord injuries, were held at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, UK starting in 1948. These Wheelchair Games were redubbed the Paralympics in 1954.

pastie, n. Adhesive coverings for a stripper’s nipples, to bring her into conformity with blue laws, were dubbed pasties starting around 1954.

Pathet Lao, n. The Laotian communist guerilla and political movement, heavily supported by the Viet Minh and later North Vietnam, formed in 1950. By 1954, the name was appearing in Western newspapers. The name literally means “Lao nation.” In 1975 the Pathet Lao seized control of the country.

pay TV, n. A general term for subscription television, in 1954 it referred to closed circuit television displaying special events in theaters. The first citation in the OED refers to opera being shown via pay TV.

pill, n.4 There are many different types of pill. This one is the little ball of fluff found on the surface of fabrics. The form pilling is actually recorded a bit earlier, in 1952.

prioritize, v. -ize words were the rage in the 1950s, much to the disappointment of language purists.

rad, n.6 Like pill, there are many types of rad. This rad is the acronym for radiation absorbed dose.

roll-on roll-off, adj. In 1954, vehicles began to be transported by roll-on roll-off ships, where they could be driven, as opposed to lifted, onto and off the boat.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, n. The name for the idea that language influences how one conceptualizes the world. It’s named for linguists Edward Sapir, who had some early thoughts on the subject, and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf who first fully articulated the idea.

SEATO, n. As part of its policy of containment of the Soviet Union, the United States formed various regional defense organizations around the world, modeled on NATO. The South East Asia Treaty Organization formed in 1954 and consisted of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France The United Kingdom, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand. SEATO disbanded in 1977.

self-assessment, n. It’s no surprise that this one comes from the world of psychology.

shitload, n. The U. S. slang term makes its debut.

stereo, adj.2 and n.3 This clipping of stereophonic reverberates through theaters and homes in 1954.

Thorazine, n. Chlorpromazine hits the U. S. market under this trade name.

Tolkienian, adj. J. R. R. Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis first used this adjective in 1954 to describe The Lord of the Rings.

vavoom, int., adj., and n. This interjection of appreciation is echoic of the sound of an automobile engine revving.

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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