The New Words Of 1957

Language is a living thing — ever-changing, morphing and adapting to develop new words to capture and describe new devices, thoughts, and concepts.  Merriam-Webster has come up with a nifty way to illustrate that point.  It’s called the Time Traveler, and it allows you to pick a year and see which new words were first used in print that year.

41hmjsg3yhlSo why not try 1957, the year of my birth and the year of the largest explosion of births in the American Baby Boom?  Just to set the context, it was the second term of the Eisenhower Administration, federal troops were called out to allow nine African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and started the Space Race, the last episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast and the first episodes of American Bandstand and Perry Mason aired on black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas, and artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard dominated the popular music charts.

And according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler, in 1957 words like bitchin’, chuffed, fantabulous, herky-jerky, hipsterism, lowball, low-rent, magic mushroom, overkill, pothead, rumble strip, scumbag, and Zen-like first appeared in print and made their way into popular lexicon.  “Static cling” was coined — no doubt by a Madison Avenue-type — to describe the annoying condition of clothes that have just come out of the dryer, “gold record” was first used to describe a hit, and somebody thought that “happy camper” was a good way to describe a contented individual.  And more serious words and phrases, like amniocentesis, antiballistic missile, cardiomyopathy, computerize, informed consent, pat down, and transsexual entered the national vocabulary.

Where would we be without words like “low-rent” and “happy camper”?  I’d say that 1957 made our national conversation a little bit richer.

1957 Was A Pretty Lame Year

Today is my 54th birthday.  As I was driving home tonight I realized I know almost nothing about my birth year, so I did a bit of research.  The results were . . . unfortunate.

In fact, you probably could argue that 1957 was the lamest, most boring year of the entire American 20th century.  The two most significant events, so far as I can determine, were the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union and the sending of federal troops to Arkansas to enforce a desegregation order — important events, to be sure, but not like the the crucial, game-changing events that occurred routinely during the Depression era, or the War Years, or the tumultuous ’60s and scandal-plagued ’70s.

In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was published, and the word “beatnik” was coined, but for the most part America was enjoying the sleepy, optimistic, prosperous, seemingly unchanging 1950s.  The country was at peace.  Dwight Eisenhower was President, as he had been for years.  Elvis was popular, and so were TV quiz shows on the black-and-white RCA and Philco TVs that Americans were buying in increasing abundance.  The Academy Award winner for Best Picture was the unremarkable and unmemorable Around the World in 80 Days.

Culturally, perhaps the most interesting thing about 1957 was that it was the height of the Baby Boom, with more children born that year than any other during the post-war years.  I’m glad I made my own contribution in that regard, to give some character to a year that otherwise will never be more than a footnote in the history books.