1958 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 408 words with first citations from 1958. In that year, both film noir and Smell-O-Vision hit the theaters; NASA planned to launch orbiters that would make soft landings; computers with on-board modems were bootstrapped; Sovietologists studied the nomenklatura and counted Russian nukes; and rock stars recorded doo-wop on audiotape.

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Events of 1958:

  • January: The European Economic Community is founded; Sputnik-1 reenters Earth’s atmosphere; Bobby Fisher wins the U. S. chess championship at age fourteen; the United States launches its first satellite, Explorer-1.
  • February: Egypt and Syria unite to form the United Arab Republic, and the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan is formed by those two states.
  • March: The U. S. S. Wisconsin is decommissioned, leaving the U. S. Navy without a battleship for the first time since 1896; Elvis Presley is drafted; Nikita Khrushchev becomes premier of the Soviet Union.
  • April: Fidel Castro’s forces begin attacks on Havana; the first Major League baseball game is played in California between two teams relocated from New York, the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • June: Charles de Gaulle becomes prime minister of France; Imre Nagy, former prime minister of Hungary, is executed.
  • July: The first International House of Pancakes opens its doors in Toluca Lake, California; U. S. Marines deploy to Beirut to prop up the government of Lebanon; a group called the Quarrymen record their first song—they will later redub themselves the Beatles; NASA is created; aviator Claire Chennault, leader of the “Flying Tigers” during WWII, dies.
  • August: The U. S. S. Nautilus makes the undersea journey to the North Pole; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is published in the United States; physicist Ernest Lawrence dies.
  • September: The first Cod War between Britain and Iceland takes place; poet Robert Service dies.
  • October: Transatlantic jet service begins; John XXIII becomes the 261st pope.
  • November: Actor Tyrone Power and baseballer Mel Ott die.
  • December: The John Birch Society is founded; physicist Wolfgang Pauli dies; by year’s end, transatlantic air passengers will have exceeded transatlantic sea passengers for the first time.

The words of 1958:

American Express, n. The American Express Company was founded in 1850, but they didn’t issue their first charge card until more than one hundred years later in 1958. The clipped Amex was trademarked in 1970.

amniocentesis, n. The procedure had been around for a while in 1958, but the name was new.

ArmaLite, n. The small arms company was founded in 1954 and trademarked their name in 1958. The company is most famous for designing the AR-15 rifle, which was adopted by the U. S. armed forces with the designation M-16.

audiotape, n. Sounds had been recorded on magnetic tape since the 1920s, but this retronym was coined in 1958 to distinguish such tapes from the newer videotape.

beatnik, n. Jack Kerouac meets the space program.

biathlon, n. The sport, combining cross-country skiing with marksmanship, was approved as an Olympic sport in 1958 and would make its debut two years later at the Squaw Valley, California games.

biogas, n. Now usually called biofuel, this petroleum substitute has been around for a while.

bootstrap, v. The computing term makes its debut. It comes from the phrase to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. By 1980 it had been shortened simply to boot or to boot up.

chromatograph, n. Chemistry labs began to be outfitted with these devices in 1958.

doner kebab, n. The Turkish name for shawarma or gyros. [Languagehat has antedated doner kebab to 1947.]

doo-wop, n. Billboard magazine named the vocal style in 1958.

étouffée, n. The Cajun dish reached a wider audience in the 1950s.

film noir, n. The film style takes its name from French.

klepto, n. The -omaniac is stolen in 1958.

Lycra, n. DuPont trademarks the fiber in this year.

melatonin, n. The hormone that helps humans, and other animals, maintain their circadian rhythms is isolated and named.

meritocracy, n. A surprisingly late addition to the language.

modem, n. An acronym for modulator-demodulator, these devices were essential additions to a computer until only a few years ago.

nanosecond, n. Scientists could accurately measure one thousand-millionth of a second in 1958.

NASA, n. In response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik the year before, in 1958 the U. S. National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

no-huddle, adj. and n. The American football term is heard for the first time. It’s chiefly found in the phrase no-huddle offense. (The OED spells it no-huddle offence. I know it’s a British dictionary, but that just isn’t right.)

nomenklatura, n., This adoption from Russian originally referred to elites of officialdom who held their positions due to their membership in the Communist Party. By the 1970s nomenklatura was being used to refer to any privileged class of elites who maintain power via control of a bureaucracy.

nuke, n.2 and adj. This inevitable clipping of nuclear weapon appears by 1958. The OED also has a 1955 citation for thermonuke.

on-board, adj. Again, another surprisingly late addition. The first citation in the OED refers to a satellite’s on-board equipment.

orbiter, n. But this one seems to be right on time.

people-watching, n. The activity gets a name in 1958.

potty-training, n. The Baby Boom was in full swing in 1958.

prequel, n. The narrative sense of sequel dates to the early sixteenth century, but prequel took a while to follow.

psilocybin, n. Albert Hofmann, of LSD fame, isolated and named this hallucinogenic compound in 1958. The name is from Psilocybe mexicana, the name of the mushroom in which it is found.

quad, n.8 There are many quad clippings. This one is the quadriceps muscle.

repo, n.2 The clipping of repossession appears in 1958. Living beyond one’s means is nothing new.

rock star, n. The rock star mentioned in the OED’s earliest citation is Dionne Warwick. [The unflagging zeal of the denizens of this site’s discussion board has found that this OED citation is incorrectly dated. The citation is actually from 1966. The earliest use of rock star found is from 1960.]

Rolf, n. The technique of deep tissue massage was developed by Ida P. Rolf in the 1920s, but it didn’t get its name until some decades later.

sensor, n. I would have guessed the first appearance of this word would have been in science fiction, but no. It appears first in science and engineering writing.

serendipitous, adj. This one appears ripe for antedating, but I can’t find any earlier uses.

Smell-O-Vision, n. Yes, this was a real thing. There was even a 1960 movie, Scent of Mystery, that used the process of releasing odors into the theater at specified points during the film. But the 1958 citation in the OED is not the first use of the word. The 1944 Bugs Bunny episode “The Old Grey Hare” has Bugs reading a newspaper from the year 2000 with the headline, “Smell-o-vision Replaces Television.” The OED also has smellie, a 1929 name for a jocularly hypothetical process that combines odors and film.

soft landing, n. Another space term from 1958.

souvlaki, n. The Greek dish makes its appearance on English-language menus.

Sovietology, n. The Cold War created this academic discipline,

tandoori, adj. (and n.) The Indian cooking technique makes its way from the former colony.

television land, n. The OED has two definitions for this term, but misses one. The dictionary says television land refers to the television industry and the world as depicted by television programs. But it is also used to refer to the viewing audience, as in, “Greetings to all of you out in television land.”

thalidomide, n. The infamous drug was approved for use in Britain in 1958.

train-spotter, n. Some hobbies are just inexplicable. While the dictionary can’t explain why train-spotters do what they do, the OED does trace the word back to 1958.

unflappable, adj. Like serendipitous, I expect this one can be antedated, but again, I can’t find an earlier citation. [Languagehat has antedated unflappable to 1954.]

uptime, n. Another computer term.

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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