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?