As our society evolves, so too do the words we choose to use. Popular slang terms have shifted wildly across the past century, so much so that what was ‘hip’ when you were born might no longer be ‘all that and a bag of chips.’ Which of these slang words do you recognize from your childhood?
1. 1924 – The Bee’s Knees
Today, if you hear someone exclaim that a certain event or happening was just “the bee’s knees,”,chances are, it will be followed up by someone else scoffing and calling them a grandma! And while the term is more or less understood today, it’s actually a century old.
Why exactly are the joints of our favorite flying pollinators considered to be so fantastically great? To be fair, nobody is really sure how this popular slang phrase entered our lexicon. For some, it’s a clever appropriation of the word ‘business,’ while for others, it may be referring to Bee Jackson, a famous Charleston dancer of the ’20s era.
2. 1927 – It Girl
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when people wouldn’t have understood what you meant if you referred to someone as a certain special ‘It.’ In the 1920s, ‘It’ came to mean allure, beauty, charm, and a personality all to boot.
Dating back to the turn of the century among British aristocracy, if someone possessed these qualities, they were referred to as ‘it.’ The term gained legs as the movie industry and the concept of celebrity evolved in the 1920s. Hollywood starlet Clara Bow was called an ‘It girl,’ the woman of the moment, the gal who you ought to pay attention to.
3. 1932 – Dog Soup
The glitz and bop of the 1920s came screeching to a halt with the Stock Market crash of 1929, and the Depression that swept the world in its wake. Things definitely weren’t ‘eggs in coffee,’ running smoothly. Anyone growing up at this time remembers how hard their parents had to scrap and save just to feed hungry mouths at home.
‘Dog soup’ became a popular slang word referring to a mere glass of water, finding a way to make light at everyone’s misfortune. That is, to say, if you didn’t have enough money to buy soup, then you at least could have ‘dog soup!’ Who knows, it may just be enough to make you ‘burp’ — yet another word invented in this period.
4. 1935 – The Low-Down
Even today, when we seek juicy details about something happening behind the scenes, chances are, we might use this phrase: “Give me the low-down!” Other variations of the concept include getting the scoop, or getting the dirt on someone. This popular slang term really took off in the 1930s.
The popular culture of the time was strongly influenced by two factors: the raucous jazz culture of the previous decade, and Hollywood films. Before the Hays Code took all the fun stuff out of movies, naughty innuendo and tough-talking gangsters were all the rage. While it’s unclear exactly when ‘the low-down’ came to mean ‘background information,’ it’s not hard to imagine a wise-talking hitman saying it.
5. 1945 – Bust Your Chops
The popular slang phrase ‘bust [your] chops’ really took off in the years following World War II, as the rough-and-tumble talk of soldiers returning from the front became the public’s lingo. If someone is busting your chops, then it means they’re nagging or berating you, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes not.
Legend has it, the slang term actually dates back hundreds of years, to medieval meat shortages when people would hide lamb chops on their body, and highwaymen would punch them to find the hidden stashes. In the 1940s and onward, it also took on a meaning of making an effort, as in, “Why should I bust my chops to find that place?”
6. 1948 – Hip
In the late 1940s, ‘hip’ became more than just a body part. It became the word used across the English-speaking world to describe someone or something that was enjoyable, relevant, or fashionable. But the popular slang word, whose use continues well on into the present, dates way far back.
While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the slang word ‘hip’, one thing is certain: it first was used among African-American communities, before making the leap to mainstream jargon. Some linguists even say it has roots in Wolof, a West African language. After World War II, a new kind of laid-back cool cat, the jazz aficionado emerged: the hipster.
7. 1951 – Nerd
All together now, bullies: point at that kid in the glasses who’s unusually interested in math and/or science, and yell, “Nerd!” It’s become a time-honored, albeit mean-spirited, tradition to call the highly-gifted but socially inept by this name, and it has been used across the span of six decades.
To be a ‘nerd’ meant to be the opposite of what’s considered ‘hip’ or ‘cool.’ It meant your zip code lay directly in the middle of ‘squaresville.’ Surprisingly enough, the first recorded use of the word appears in a 1950 Dr. Seuss book! The following year, Newsweek magazine noted that the word was being used to describe people considered dull and socially awkward in Detroit.
8. 1955 – Made In The Shade
When things are hot, few sights could be more reassuring than some nice shade. The generators of hot new slang terms in the 1950s were well aware of this, as ‘made in the shade’ came to be a great compliment for someone. It meant that everything came of ease to that person.
To have it or get it ‘made in the shade’ meant success was right at your fingertips. For young actor James Dean, for example, everything seemed to just magically enfold in front of him: career opportunities, star power, screaming fans. It looked for a moment like he had everything ‘made in the shade’, all until that fateful car crash.
9. 1958 – The Boonies
As an entire generation of men came home from World War II, and an entire generation of women came home from the factories supporting the war effort, they created families that led to the infamous Baby Boom. The 1950s was the era of new suburbs, constantly expanding. That meant the city center became farther and farther away.
Everything became relative, and often work commutes would take you on the route between ‘home’ and ‘The City,’ a concept that hadn’t existed too much before this era. That meant anything beyond the limits of suburbia was really truly far, and considered ‘the Boonies.’ Although the word had a negative connotation at the time of its genesis, the many Western TV shows of the era celebrated the great wild yonder.
10. 1961 – What A Drag
“Aw, shucks!” Thanks to the Beatnik subculture, a new avatar of the post-World War II hipster, a whole new jargon of strange new inventions added fuel to the popular slang of the English language. While a ‘drag’ could also mean a long toke on someone’s cigarette, it’s not hard to see why it became a negative term.
Anything that brought you down and made you feel ‘bummed’ was a ‘real drag,’ as whatever negative thing it may be was physically dragging you down from ‘Cloud Nine.’ For example, that whole Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear annihilation? ‘What a drag!’
11. 1966 – Groovy
We have to truly thank our lucky stars for the genre of jazz and the culture surrounding it, as it not only gave us music, but also some of the coolest popular slang out there. The word ‘groovy’ originates in jazz, perhaps the physical grooves on a hot jazz record. But by the 1960s, the word took on a new persona — and everyone was saying it.
If you ask someone today to invoke the ’60s, chances are, they’ll say ‘Groovy!’ Few words better summarize an era than this one, and thanks to the likes of Austin Powers, younger generations know it too. As the youth of the ’60s ‘flew their freak flag,’ while California-Hawaii surf culture and illicit substances became ever more accepted, the words ‘groovy’ and ‘psychedelic’ became everyone’s go-to positive exclamation.
12. 1969 – Sock It To Me
To ‘sock’ someone is to jab them, and on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, arguably one of the most successful comedy shows of all time, a new phrase came to life. In just her early 20s, up and coming actress Goldie Hawn used to tell the show’s hosts, ‘Sock it to me!’ This meant, more or less, ‘hit me with your best shot.’
Though this became the catchphrase of the program and spread into popular slang, so far that even President Richard Nixon appeared on the show to say it deadpan, the slang expression existed before Laugh-In. Two years prior, in Aretha Franklin’s world-famous cover of “Respect,” the background singers dared the audience, “Sock it to me, sock it to me.” Some even trace the term back to a passage by Mark Twain!
13. 1971 – Right On!
The late ’60s and early ’70s were characterized by social and political change, the extent and passion of which the world had never seen before, and it was ‘far out’, man. Fiery speeches from social protest movements were splashed across television scenes, helping spread popular slang catchphrases.
One of the best-known ways of encouraging a speaker who was saying something you agreed with was by shouting back, “Right on!” The Black Panthers particularly popularized the term. It could have been a shortened way of saying ‘right on time,’ or an appropriation of Vietnam War bomb lingo, saying something was ‘right on target.’
14. 1975 – Psyche!
How on Earth could this word have gained its current, best-known meaning? In the early 1960s, to ‘psyche’ someone meant to freak them out, to trick them or otherwise disturb them. Over the course of the decade, to be ‘psyched’ about something also meant to be overcome with nervous excitement. Then came a huge shift.
Some way, somehow, ‘psyche’ underwent yet another evolution in the early 1970s, and it has stuck through the present day. It was the shortest possible way of expressing to someone that you were, in fact, kidding all along. Say, for example, your friend really wants you to loan them your brand-new car. You pretend you’ve agreed, and then to retract that statement, you quickly shout: “Psyche!”
15. 1979 – Can You Dig It?
“Do you understand how amazing this is?” Yeah, that phrase seems long and clunky enough to the point that whoever you’re asking might suddenly be less enthusiastic than before you’d asked. Thankfully, popular slang in the ’60s and ’70s invented an excellent shorthand way to express that same sentiment.
To ‘dig’ something meant either to understand or to comprehend the full scale or glory of something. You could even ask someone, “you dig?” — just to make sure they caught your drift. The Beatles final album even featured a song called “Dig It,” but the phrase became infamous thanks to its use in the notorious 1979 cult film, The Warriors.
16. 1982 – Rad
As the sound and fury of the ’70s began to quiet down into the more conservative ’80s, so too did the words of the past take on new meanings. Political radicals and radical new ideas were everywhere in the Flower Power era, and thus the word came to be a synonym for ‘cool’ in the decades following.
Surfer dudes and dudettes, along with some help from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped popularize the word ‘rad,’ meaning anything awesome or noteworthy. That exclamation, of course, was often accompanied by the ‘shaka’ hand sign, shaking your thumb and pinkie back and forth. ‘Rad’ could also be interchanged with ‘tubular,’ or even ‘gnarly.’
17. 1985 – Gag Me With A Spoon
What is it with the 1980s and the popular slang obsession with upchucking? For whatever reason, the materialistic, shallow, airheaded Valley Girl stereotype was considered hilarious in the Reagan era, and this was one of their best-known catchphrases. You can even hear it in Frank Zappa’s song “Valley Girl”, an ode to this ditzy subculture.
The phrase spread out of Southern California and became adopted, in part ironically, by the rest of America. But it was just so much fun to say that often the irony was lost on the audience! You could also exclaim, ‘Barf me out!’ Or, you could refer to something undesirable as being ‘grody’. Like, totally!
18. 1989 – What’s Your Damage?
Let’s face it. By the late 1980s, no matter how much someone was bothering you, saying “What’s your problem?” just didn’t seem forceful enough. Thankfully, along came the 1988 viciously dark comedy cult classic film, Heathers. And it wasn’t just Winona Ryder’s career that was jet-propelled into the public consciousness by the film.
Heathers, through its brand of bitterly cynical teenage jargon, brought us the term, “What’s your damage?” For a film with plenty of destruction in it, the quote seems quite fitting. Don’t have a cow when you learn where it came from, though: director Daniel Waters has since revealed that he snagged the line from one of his campers when he was a camp counselor.
19. 1992 – What’s The 411?
By the early 1990s, push-button phones were truly everywhere, and it was ‘da bomb.’ They were even fitted in people’s cars, and while no one could have dreamed of the information-holding capacity they would have today, what little info they could get from their phone caused a popular slang term.
The numerical sequence 4-1-1 was the extension you could dial for information. As computers and phones began to dominate the planet, their technological lingo found new audiences. Hip-hop had become a force to be reckoned with, and its ‘phat’ music further popularized the term. Look no further than the name of Mary J. Blige’s debut album.
20. 1995 – As If!
Could you truly have lived and been cognizant in the 1990s and not have seen the 1995 film Clueless? It’s all that, and a bag of chips! The teen comedy showcasing superficial Beverly Hills high-schoolers generated a television series, a cult following, and endless catchphrases that have become an inseparable part of modern popular slang.
The film’s lead, Cher Horowitz (played by Alicia Silverstone), famously scoffs, rolls her eyes, and shoves away a particularly pesky male suitor. With irritation, she exclaims, “Ugh, as if!” shortening her thought process of “As if I would actually ever consider going out with you!” Not good enough for you? Whatever.
21. 1999 – Eat My Shorts
Despite the time-tested adage “The Simpsons did it first,” in this case, actually no! The Simpsons did not do it first. You can hear the bully in The Breakfast Club mutter the phrase under his breath to the assistant principal back in 1985. But Bart Simpson had a key role in bringing this popular slang phrase to the public’s attention a decade later.
Just like sneering “Bite me!” (or, for the sassier among us, “talk to the hand!), “eat my shorts” was a challenge to someone to back off, or get lost. Skateboarding prankster Bart Simpson had a habit of saying the phrase, and as skateboarding became ever popular in the ’90s, so too did this slang term.
22. 2003 – LOL
Remember a time before the Internet influenced most of our decisions, down to the way we speak to one another? It’s pretty hard to fathom. Back around the beginning of the new millennium, the shorthand phrases invented for phone texts and Instant Messenger (remember that?) made the leap into everyday speech.
Easily the most commonly used of any of these phrases was ‘lol’, standing for ‘laugh out loud’ (or, as many an endearing older relative has thought it meant, ‘lots of love’). It was a way to let your long-distance conversation partner know you were laughing along with them, even if they couldn’t hear you.
23. 2005 – That’s Hot
Love it or revile it, you can’t deny the popularity of this slang term. In the first few years of the new millennium, reality TV series became all the rage, and a new subgenre emerged: putting famous people into awkward scenarios. Enter socialite Paris Hilton, famous for being famous, and the show The Simple Life.
The famously pampered Paris found herself out of water in a rural setting, but took her speech patterns along with her. As everything about her appearance was crucial to Paris, her word choice reflected that. Rather than saying, “That’s cool,” she popularized the catch phrase “That’s hot.” She has tried to trademark the phrase since. The flip-side of this phrase is, “That’s whack!”
24. 2012 – YOLO
Step aside, carpe diem. The Roman Empire and its Latin language are long gone, and the generation of today speaks in Internet abbreviations. Hip-hop and rap dominate the music scene and popular culture, and inform language’s popular slang. Enter Canadian rap superstar, Drake.
Eight decades before, the legendary actress Mae West, known for always pushing the envelope, was quoted as saying, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” The concept has endured, encouraging people to live their best life. Drake’s music shortened it to the catchphrase “YOLO,” and the term has stuck like glue. He is yet to get it officially trademarked.
25. 2015 – Yass
No shade intended, but the origins of this phrase are more than a bit complicated, so buckle up. The phrase, “Yass!” an enthusiastic and deliberate mispronunciation of “Yes!” has its origin in African-American dancers at drag balls in the 1980s. These were events in which drag queens would strut, dance, and compete with one another, similar to a pageant. Hence, “Yass, queen!” (You may also prefer to misspell as “kween!”)
As LGBTQ lifestyles gained wider visibility and acceptance across the world in the decades to follow, the term was all colors of the community, and was especially popularized by the comedy show Broad City and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Today, there is some controversy as to word appropriation that has taken place, as the term coined by the black LGBTQ community has become part of the mainstream.
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