Monday, August 20, 2012

Memories of Slang

As a ghostwriter, I often help people write their memoirs or their family histories. In this role I get to ask a lot of questions, but preparing my interviews can be challenging because research of personal stories cannot be done by searching through public information on the Internet. You have to go fishing in the personal pond, which can be murky or shallow.

One of the ways I fish for interesting and colorful details about my memoir clients’ lives is to ask about how the people in their story talked. Like most writers, I love words, so one of my favorite research topics is on the language used by various generations. Knowing the popular slang of an era adds color and authenticity to a memoir (or fiction.) Asking questions of the client about how their parents talked, or how they talked when young, is a good way to bring back buried memories.

One thing that defines a generation is their way of speaking, especially the slang developed in their teens and twenties. These words often reflect the political changes and social preoccupations of the time. I’ve made extensive lists of popular slang from the 1930s through the 1990s, but here is a brief glimpse into fifty years of slang. Maybe you heard some of these words coming out the mouths of your grandparents, parents, or even your peers.

In the 1930s, many slang words were taken from the world of jazz musicians, such as groovy, jam, tin ear, and juke box, which swept into our language due to the powerful new medium of radio. Radio was also the origin of ether for radio waves, and standby in case the performer was late, and so-so for a joke that falls flat. The thirties were the Depression era, giving us slang like easy street, brain trust, Hooverville, and flop house; and Prohibition was alive until 1933, so people talked of hooch, rot gut, bootleg, and hair of the dog.

In the 1940s, along with sarcastic slang for bureaucratic doubletalk such as gibberish and doubletalk itself, much of the slang had to do with body parts, such as meathooks for hands, breadbasket for stomach, biscuit for head, prayer dukes for knees, and moss for whiskers. Perhaps using humorous words for body parts was a way of neutralizing the horror of what was really happening to those body parts during the war.

In the 1950s the popular vernacular veered back to the world of music as in hip, jive, and swinging, intermixed with political jargon such as Big Brother, brainwashing, Cold War, and overkill, reflecting some of the paranoia of that decade.

In the 1960s, the radical flavor of the decade showed up noticeably in the slang of the baby boom generation. The sixties were all about shocking the establishment, and the slang certainly tried for shock value, especially in the use of four-letter words in polite company. The “s-word” and the “f-word” were the most popular expletives, and they were used everywhere, in every form – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, compound words – used for disapproval, approval, excitement, anger, disbelief, you name it. Sixties slang also recycled terms from the jazz musicians of the thirties and African-American slang, such as groovy, cool, far-out, and the ubiquitous man tacked on to everything. Plus there were so many new words for drugs and drug paraphernalia that it would take way too long to list them.

In the 1970s the revolution in sexual roles was reflected in new phrases such as male chauvinist, gender gap, palimony, sex object, significant other, person used in place of man in words such as chairman, and the title Ms. for a woman regardless of her marital state. The 70s saw the birth of compound words ending in the suffix gate to mean corrupt or scandalous, taken from the scandal of the time, Watergate. The slang of this decade also included dozens of terms for vomit or the act of vomiting. I confess I don’t know why this was, but it’s interesting to speculate why words such as barf and hurl came into vogue, along with phrases such as decorate your shoes and ride the porcelain bus.

Aren’t words fun?
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit
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  1. That's a great exercise. Your post reminded me that my grandmother used to call the cinema a "bioscope".

  2. I, too, love words and the unique pictures they paint in our minds. A walk through he annals of slang define the colorful evolution of language and confer fascination on what many consider a dull topic. (Do I have to admit that I remember ALL these terms? Uh…maybe not.)

    Great post, Kim.

  3. Fascinating post, Kim! I'm going to send my fiction-writing clients over here, as these slang words will be useful not only in writing historical fiction, but in the dialogue of older people who still use some of those words (I catch myself still using "far out" from the sixties!), or for flashbacks to when the character was younger. Great stuff!

  4. Since I love to edit historical novels as well as mysteries, researching the vernacular of a period becomes crucial to the authentic voice in the writing. The toughest ones are books taking place in my lifetime. I find myself researching word etymology non-stop when reading a Sue Grafton novel, for example. These take place in the eighties, and though Grafton doesn't infuse a lot of slang into her writing, there are other words to watch out for. For example, would the protagonist's neighbor have hired a lawn service that used leaf blowers? When did leaf blowers actually come into popular use? Weird stuff like that. Anyway, groovy post, man! It gives me nifty ideas for my monthly Hearing Voices gig. :D

  5. I'm glad I don't write contemporary, but I try to be careful about slang sneaking into medieval fantasy.

  6. I appreciate your era-specific commentary on the development of slang, Kim. Makes you wonder why things considered praise-worthy these days are now "bad" and "sick," and why an answer to "What's up with that?" can be "I'm down with that." Perhaps our increased reliance on technology has thrown our perception of the natural order of things topsy-turvy?

  7. That reminds me of a funny story. Years ago, I hosted a German exchange student, and like most young people, he wanted very much to be cool and fit in. So he tried using American slang when he spoke English. Remember the expression "get down"? Well that was his fave, except he kept saying "go down". Which generated more than a few raised eyebrows and giggles from the Americans around him. I wonder if anyone ever clued him in. Not me! :D

  8. Slang is an age-betrayer. Just the other day I heard "Right on!" come out of my mouth. Oh well.

    If you want more historical slang, here's a shameless promotion. My book "Making History: how to remember, record, interpret and share the events of your life" (available on Amazon) includes extensive lists of slang words from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

    I love your ponderings, Dani. Now I must go find out the history of leaf blowers.

  9. Interesting comments, too! I edited a book taking place in the 1850s where the author used the term "upscale neighborhood". I suggested he change it to something like "trendy". LOL! No, I didn't! I think I suggested "affluent" or "upper class" or something like that.

  10. It's funny how slang changes. Watch a Jackie Gleason show and you'll hear plenty of what was popular at that time.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. My great-grandmother used to call a car a machine. It was a long time before my grandfather's generation stopped calling a refrigerator an ice-box. My husband still calls an answering machine "the answering service". And me? I'm outasite, man! All the way in the ozone! Groovy -- Life without slang would be a stone drag!

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  12. Oo! Don't forget "keen" and "boss"! I remember all of these except for "decorate your shoes". I have a whole book of British slang; I'll never mention putting things in a fanny pack again.


  13. And did any Englishman ever offer to knock you up in the morning? Hahaha. Kim, we need to add your promo to the blog post!

  14. I've enjoyed the comments as much as the post. What fun to visit all these old slang words and expressions.

    Dani, interesting point about the leaf blower. As I was writing my historical mystery, I found I had to check to make sure when electric coffee pots were first in use, as well as a couple of other things that I thought of having my protagonist use. With the access to the Internet, I was able to do a quick check. I just typed in the search field, "When were electric coffee pots invented?" and I got lots of sites with the information. Only took about five minutes to research.

    I'm always amazed and thankful when I can do that. I remember in the past when facing a question like that having to go to the library, or call a reference librarian. What a time-saver the Internet is.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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