1956 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 368 words with first citations from 1956. In that year, pencil-necked geeks working in computer science came up with both microcomputers and Fortran, while their counterparts in materials science invented Lexan and Scotchgard; comitology took paper-pushing to new heights; the glitterati of New York, sporting Tony Curtises, could accept their Obies; and Tylenol started to be dispensed over the counter.

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Events of 1956:

  • January: Writers H. L. Mencken and A. A. Milne die.
  • February: Spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean resurface in the Soviet Union after having been missing for five years; Elvis Presley makes the charts for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel; Nikita Khrushchev condemns the cult of personality that had developed around Stalin; baseball manager Connie Mack dies.
  • March: Morocco and Tunisia declare their independence from France; Soviet troops suppress demonstrations in Georgia over Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin; My Fair Lady opens on Broadway; the Dow-Jones Industrial Average closes above 500 for the first time.
  • April: The CBS soap opera As the World Turns debuts; Grace Kelly marries Rainier III of Monaco; boxer Rocky Marciano retires with an undefeated record.
  • May: The United Methodist Church in the United States admits women to the clergy; the first Eurovision Song Contest takes place, with Lys Assia’s Refrain taking the top prize.
  • June: General Electric introduces an alarm clock with a snooze feature; Elvis Presley’s hip movements on The Milton Berle Show scandalize audiences; U. S. President Eisenhower signs legislation creating the Interstate Highway System.
  • July: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus perform under a tent for the last time; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis end their comedy act after a decade of performances; the S. S. Andrea Doria sinks off Nantucket after colliding with the S. S. Stockholm.
  • August: The DuMont television network ceases broadcasts; artist Jackson Pollock, actor Béla Lugosi, and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey die.
  • September: Elvis Presley appears on The Ed Sullivan Show; the submarine transatlantic telephone cable carries its first phone calls.
  • October: N. Y. Yankee Don Larsen, with Yogi Berra catching, pitches the only perfect game in World Series history; Hungary attempts to overthrow its pro-Soviet government and the revolution is crushed by the Red Army; The Huntley-Brinkley Report debuts on NBC-TV; Israel invades the Sinai, with the assistance of British and French air forces; the United States begins construction of the permanent Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole.
  • November: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is published; the Suez crisis ends with foreign troops withdrawing from the Sinai; the Soviets reestablish control of Hungary; Roger Vadim’s film And God Created Woman propels Brigitte Bardot to international stardom; band leader Tommy Dorsey dies.
  • December: Fidel Castro returns to Cuba and begins guerilla warfare against the government; the game show To Tell the Truth debuts on CBS-TV.

The words of 1956:

1984, n. Within seven years of its publication, people were using the title of George Orwell’s novel as a noun denoting a totalitarian surveillance-state.

aikido, n. The Japanese martial art battled its way into English in 1956. [Languagehat has antedated this one to 1955.]

Bayesian, adj. and n. The work of eighteenth-century mathematician Thomas Bayes languished in obscurity until the latter half of the twentieth century when statisticians, now using computers that could take advantage of it, realized the power of his theorem.

botel, n. I thought this name for a hotel catering to boat owners would turn out to be a nonce expression, but the OED has a number of citations from the 1950s and 60s, leading me to think that botels were more common than I thought.

comitology, n. Comitology is the study of committees. I’m not entirely certain whether or not the word is intended as a joke. The first citation in the OED is by C. Northcote Parkinson, who gave us 1955’s Parkinson’s Law.

computer science, n. I would have expected this one a few years earlier.

data center, n. Another computer word coined in the 50s.

decaf, n. and adj. The clipping of decaffeinated coffee appears in 1956 as the name Nestle’s Decaf is trademarked.

Dom Pérignon, n. The name of the champagne also gets its U. S. trademark in 1956. [Languagehat has antedated this one to 1940.]

feta, n. The Greek cheese made from sheep or goat milk is recorded in English use.

Fortran, n. An acronym for formula translation, this computer language makes its debut.

F-word, n. The word this euphemism represents starts appearing in print at about the same time the F-word is coined. Whether this is ironic or causal is an exercise left to the reader.

glitterati, n. The dumbing-down of culture. Where once we had literati, now we have glitterati.

hinky, adj. Hinky is African-American and U. S. police slang for “nervous, suspect, questionable.”

holster, v. I’ve heard this verb in numerous Western movies, but the first citation in the OED is from Ed McBain’s (a. k. a., Evan Hunter’s) 1956 crime novel Cop Hater, the first book in his 87th Precinct series. The noun, of course, is much older, dating to the seventeenth century.

Indy, n.2 This clipping of Indianapolis 500 was first applied to that famous race in 1956.

Lexan, n.  The name of the clear plastic was trademarked in 1956.

limbo, n.3 The name for the Caribbean dance is first recorded in 1956. Where the name comes from is something of a mystery.

margherita, adj. (and n.) The name of the pizza topping appears on English menus in this year. It was created in 1889 and named for Margherita of Savoy, then queen of Italy. The tomato, cheese, and basil represent the colors of the Italian flag.

materials science, n. The study of the structure, properties, and utility of substances gets a name.

microcomputer, n. We call this a PC nowadays. The OED’s first citation of microcomputer is from a 1956 Isaac Asimov short story.

mogul, n.2 This skiing term comes from the dialectal Austrian Mugel meaning “small hill.” It’s related to Mockel, found in wider circulation in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, meaning “chunk, lump.”

nadger, n. This humorous term first appears on BBC Radio’s The Goon Show in 1956. Like the earlier lurgy, it also refers to a non-specific disease. By the late 1960s, the plural form, nadgers, was in use to mean “testicles.”

Obie, n. New York City’s The Village Voice started handing out Obie Awards in this year. The award is for off-Broadway theatrical productions, hence the name, which is modeled on television’s Emmy Award.

on-ramp, n. Off ramps had been around since 1939, but the OED doesn’t record their counterparts until 1956.

origami, n. The Japanese word, literally “folding paper,” makes its way across the Pacific. [Languagehat has antedated this one to 1920.]

paper-pushing, adj. I guess you could say this was a form of origami too, only not as elegant. The term paper-pusher arises in 1942, but the activity isn’t named until the next decade.

particle board, n. The construction material gets its name.

pencil-necked, adj. (also pencil-neck, adj.) Those engaged in paper-pushing were often thusly described.

rockabilly, n. The name for the musical genre, which arose in the wake of Elvis Presley’s chart success, first appears on the pages of Billboard magazine in 1956.

Scotchgard, n. The preparation for making fabric stain-resistant was trademarked in this year.

shit-eating, adj. Most often found in the phrase shit-eating grin, this one also makes its debut.

sonogram, n. A sonogram is a graphical representation of sound.

spec, n.3 I would have thought this clipping of specification would have arisen in manufacturing, but the earliest citation is actually from science fiction.

Szechuan, n. The spicy style of Chinese cooking, named for the province in which it arose, makes its Western debut.

tax-and-spend, adj. and n. Conservatives have been accusing liberals of this practice for a long time.

Tony Curtis, n. The actor gave his name to the hair style he made famous.

treeware, n. Originally, treeware referred to anything made from wood. In the 1990s, it was adopted into computing slang referring to anything printed on paper.

Tylenol, n. This name for acetaminophen (paracetamol) was trademarked in 1956. Tylenol is a case where the brand name is older than the generic; both acetaminophen and paracetamol are 1957 words.

underwhelm, v. I’m surprised this jocular play on overwhelm didn’t occur to anyone prior to 1956. But this entry is from the 1989 OED second edition, so perhaps antedates will be found.

vancomycin, n. The name for the antibiotic of last resort is coined in 1956. The drug was first isolated in 1953. The first vancomycin-resistant bacterial strains emerged in 1987.

weaponized, adj. Originally, the adjective weaponized referred to making a nuclear device small and hardy enough for battlefield use, but the adjective was later extended to refer to enriching fissionable material to the point it could sustain a nuclear chain reaction or to making biological agents appropriate for dispersal as a weapon.

wham-bam | wham-bang, adv. (and int.), adj. and n. The first citation in the OED is from Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, in which she uses wham-bang to refer to turning tricks as a child prostitute. The word is frequently found in the phrase wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

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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