1959 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 513 words with first citations from 1959. In that year, as in any other, kooky nutcases abounded; pantyhose and Spandex gave the impression of spray-on clothing; CB radios and electronic mail heralded new ways to communicate; the Baby Boom was starting to fade, but not before the introduction of Lamaze; mini-marts began to replace the high-street shops; and Fidelism swept one country, while Disneyfication swept another just to the north.

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Events of 1959:

  • January: Fidel Castro’s forces take Havana and form a government in Cuba; Alaska becomes the 49th U. S. state; Charles de Gaulle becomes president of France; filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille dies.
  • February: A Swiss referendum denies women the right to vote countrywide, although some cantons permit it; musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper die in a plane crash; baseballer Nap Lajoie dies.
  • March: The Marx Brothers perform for the last time; Barbie hits the store shelves; Tibet rises against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama flees to India; comedian Lou Costello and writer Raymond Chandler die.
  • April: NASA announces the names of the first seven American astronauts; Miles Davis records Kind of Blue; architect Frank Lloyd Wright dies.
  • May: Musician Sidney Bechet and diplomat John Foster Dulles die.
  • June: Singapore becomes self-governing; the first ballistic missile submarine, the U. S. S. George Washington, is launched; actors George Reeves ("Superman") and Ethel Barrymore die.
  • July: Louis and Mary Leakey discover an Australopithecus skull in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, previously other bones had been found, but not a skull; Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev hold their “kitchen debate” in Moscow; a hovercraft crosses the English Channel for the first time; musician Billie Holiday dies.
  • August: Hawaii becomes the 50th U. S. state; U.S. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey dies.
  • September: The Soviet Luna-2 spacecraft is the first to reach the surface of the moon.
  • October: Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone premieres; Luna-3 records the first images of the far side of the moon; New York’s Guggenheim Museum opens its doors; actor Errol Flynn and U. S. soldier and diplomat George C. Marshall die.
  • November: Richard Hickock and Perry Smith murder the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, a crime that Truman Capote will document in his book In Cold Blood; Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston is released; boxer Max Baer dies.
  • December: The Antarctic Treaty is signed, banning military activity from the continent, invalidating national claims to the territory, and setting it aside for scientific research, the first Cold War arms control treaty.

The words of 1959:

Barbie, n.2 The name of the doll was trademarked in 1959.

binge eating, n. Psychiatrists coined this unjargonish bit of jargon in this year.

capo, n. The Mafia term for “boss,” from the Italian for “head,” breaks out. [This one can be readily antedated to the nineteenth century.]

CB, n. The CB or Citizens’ Band radio craze hit the United States in the late 1970s, but the Federal Communications Commission had established the band in 1958, and the name appeared a year later.

co-pay, n. The insured patient’s portion of a medical bill got its name in 1959.

cosmonaut, n. The Russian term equivalent of astronaut enters English discourse as part of the space race.

counter-productive, adj. The first citation of this one in the OED is by U. S. President Eisenhower. I suspect earlier citations can be found.

Disneyfication, n. The phrase Disneyfication of America appears as early as 1959.

dopamine, n. The brain chemical gets its name.

down and dirty, adv., int., and adj. The adjective meaning “devious, unscrupulous” appears by 1959, but the poker term, used in stud games to refer to the final face-down card, is recorded in Wentworth and Flexner’s 1960 slang dictionary. So it seems likely that down and dirty had earlier currency in poker circles and that may be its origin.

electronic mail, n. In 1959, electronic mail referred to transmission of facsimiles as a public service. The use to denote textual messages sent over a computer network doesn’t appear until 1975.

fantabulous, adj. The blend of fantastic and fabulous makes its debut.

Fidelism, n. The revolution in Cuba was big news in 1959.

filk, n. Sometimes typos can take on a life of their own. In the early 1950s, Lee Jacobs wrote and article titled “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music,” with filk being a typo for folk. He could not get the article published because the bawdy lyrics quoted in it, but the typo became an in-joke among science fiction fans, and by 1953 the word filk was in use by science fiction fans to refer to a familiar song with rewritten lyrics. The OED has 1959 as its earliest citation, but the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction has the 1953 citation.

go-kart, n. The 1959 citation in the OED is from Britain, but that citation refers to the introduction of go-kart racing from the United States, so earlier American citations are likely to be found.

hash, n.2 The OED dates the clipping of hashish from 1959. I bet it can be antedated.

high-street, adj. The British use of high street to refer to things characteristic of the main shopping district in a town appears in 1959.

hot dog, v. The verb meaning “to show off” makes an appearance.

hovercraft, n. Over fifty years old, and they still seem futuristic.

identikit, n. and adj. The police composite image tool appears in 1959. They’re still around, but the transparent overlays are now computerized.

innumeracy, n. (and innumerate, adj. and n.) Modeled after illiteracy, innumeracy is squarely in the “mathematics is a language” camp.

Jag, n.3 A clipping of the Jaguar automobile.

kooky, adj. The noun kook isn’t recorded until 1960, so this adjective seems to precede it. (Of course, it may just be that we don’t have an earlier published source for the noun.) Both the adjective and the noun are probably a variation on cuckoo.

Lamaze, n. French physician Ferdinand Lamaze invented this system of natural childbirth, which became popular in the United States with the 1959 publication of Marjorie Karmel’s autobiographic book Thank You, Dr. Lamaze.

mini-mart, n. The name for a convenience store debuts. (Inconveniently, the OED doesn’t record convenience store until 1965.)

minivan, n. The growth in popularity of these vehicles dates to the 1990s, but the term minivan is much older.

Muppet, n. Jim Henson’s name for his puppets is first recorded in print in 1959, although Henson had been using the word Muppet, a blend of marionette and puppet, for some years prior to this.

naff, v. The British colloquial interjection naff off is first heard in 1959. The origin is unknown, but one hypothesis is that it is from the northern English dialectal naf “female genitals.” Another guess is that it is a variant on eff off.  The verb is apparently etymologically unrelated to the adjective naff, meaning “worthless.” The origin of the adjective, which appears by 1966, is also unknown, but it may come from Polari slang and ultimately the Italian gnaffa “despicable person.” Polari is a slang cant once used among British gay men.

no-brainer, n. and adj. This one is.

nutcase, n. Kooky, no-brainer, and now nutcase. Something must have been in the water. Maybe it was the fluoride after all.

pantyhose, n. The nylon tights hit the market big time in 1959.

powerlifting, n. The sport of competitive weightlifting got this name in 1959.

rote, adj.2 The phrase by rote goes back to Middle English, but the independent use of rote as an adjective, as in rote learning, is much more recent.

skosh, n. This noun meaning “a little bit” is from the Japanese sukoshi, meaning “a little, somewhat.” It was brought into the language by U. S. servicemen returning from tours of duty in Japan.

Spandex, n. The U. S. Federal Register for 10 February 1959 designates Spandex as a generic name for the fabric. The name is an alteration of expand.

spray-on, adj. Spray paint was invented in 1949. Spray-on followed within a decade.

unibody, n. This technique of designing automobiles appears in this year.

Uzi, n. Uzial Gal’s submachine gun went into service with the Israeli army in 1954. Within a few years the word had entered English.

Van Allen, n. In 1959 physicist James Van Allen described the radiation belts around the earth that were discovered by the U. S. Explorer satellites.

Wicca, n. An Old English word that was revived to name a modern religion.

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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