25 Common Words That Didn’t Exist Until the 1970s
Turns out, "meme," "e-mail," and "woke" are older than you thought!
One of the biggest ways that our world changes is in the language. Every year, new words and phrases are added to the dictionary and become part of our common vocabulary. In 2019 alone, words like “unplug” and “fuzzy” and “screen time” became officially recognized as words in the English language by Merriam-Webster. Think about how weird that is for a minute: If you went back just a decade and told somebody you “needed to unplug,” they’d assume you were talking about disconnecting an electric device from a wall outlet.
Go back even further and it gets especially crazy. Many of the words and phrases that we take for granted, that feel like they’ve been part of the way we communicate for generations, are actually relatively new. Here are 25 words that many of us say all the time without thinking twice but in many cases didn’t even exist before the 1970s.
When General Motors made the “decision to downsize” in 1975, focusing on smaller and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, it was the first time that many Americans had heard this odd new word. It just sounded so proactive and friendly, far less scary than explanations like “eliminate” or, as “downsize” would come to mean as more and more companies adapted it, “you’re fired.”
When a song’s melody burrows into your head and just won’t go away, we all refer to it as an “earworm.” But that word wasn’t a thing until at least 1978, when it was first used by author Desmond Bagley in his novel Flyaway. “I fell into a blind, mindless rhythm and a chant was created in my mind, what the Germans call an ‘earworm,'” he wrote. “Something that goes round and round in your head and you can’t get rid of it. One bloody foot before the next bloody foot.”
It’s strange enough trying to remember a time before “e-mail,” where any written correspondence required paper and postage. But it’s really mind-blowing when you learn that the word was created by a 14-year-old computer prodigy in Newark, New Jersey, in 1978…years before email became part of everyone’s lives!
“Spaz,” short for spastic, has been around since at least the ’60s—the New York Times explained in 1965 that “spaz” was another way of saying “You’re strictly from 23-skidoo”—but it didn’t really enter popular culture until 1978, when a Saturday Night Live sketch called “The Nerds” introduced us to Chaz the Spaz, (Steve Martin), known for observations like “That’s a fabulous science fair project… not!” When another character named Spaz (played by Jack Blum) left a lasting impression in the 1979 Bill Murray camp comedy Meatballs, “spaz” became the preferred way of describing an excitable, overeager nerd.
If you’ve ever called yourself or somebody else a “couch potato,” you owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Iacino of Pasadena, California. An anti-nutrition and -exercise advocate, he was part of a group who affectionately described themselves as “Boob Tubers,” because of their affinity for watching endless hours of TV rather than leaving the house and breaking a sweat. Iacino purportedly came up with the evocative term during a phone call on July 15, 1976, and the group’s name was soon changed to The Couch Potatoes, who welcomed new members to “come out of the closet and lie down and be counted.”
A “factoid,” as it was first coined by author Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, are “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.” There has been lots of debate ever since about exactly how much truth are contained in factoids, with the Washington Times once arguing that they’re “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact.”
Granola has been around since the 1870s, when Dr. John Kellogg created a disgusting health food that was so dense and chewy, it had to be soaked overnight in milk before eating. But granola didn’t find enthusiastic customers until 1972, when Jim Matson, the so-called “father of modern granola,” began selling Heartland Natural Cereal. Suddenly, “granola” became a shorthand for “healthy breakfast.”
Prior to 1972, Watergate was just a luxury hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. But then five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which led to a government cover-up and the eventual scandal-driven resignation of President Richard Nixon. And now “Watergate”—and sometimes just the suffix “-gate”—is a quick and easy way of pointing out corruption. From “Deflategate” to “Bridgegate,” if a scandal has “gate” at the end, you know it’s bad.
When British scientist Richard Dawkins came up with the word “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the Internet was decades away from being invented, so he definitely wasn’t talking about funny images that go viral online. But the spirit of it was the same. His definition of meme—a reworking of the ancient Greek word “mimeme,” roughly translated as “mimic,” combined with “gene”—was “a unit of cultural transmission.” So there you have it—there’s a direct line of influence between the ancient Greeks and Grumpy Cat.
The very first automated teller machine (ATM) opened at a bank in Enfield, a suburb of London, all the way back in 1967. But ATMs as we know them today—and the acronym that has become synonymous with “I need to get some fast cash”—first launched at the Chemical Bank in Rockville Centre, New York, just in time for the 1970s. As ads for the new machine promised, “Our banks will open at 9 am and never close again.”
If you call somebody “politically correct” in 2019, you’re probably not intending it as a compliment. But when those two words were first used together in print, as a way to describe somebody’s progressive values, it wasn’t meant as an insult. The feminist scholar and activist Toni Cade coined the phrase in her 1970 essay “The Black Woman,” in which she declared that “a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist, too.”
It was Bill Cardoso, the late editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, who first used the word “gonzo” to describe the fiercely subjective (and likely elaborated) journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, all the way back in June 1970. Thompson loved the word so much that he took it for himself and often used it to describe his take-no-prisoners reporting, from his Rolling Stone stories to books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “But what was the story?” he asked in Fear and Loathing. “Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own… Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “trifecta” started as horse-racing lingo in the ’70s, where you could win big by betting on which horses would finish first, second, and third, in the exact order. Even casual fans had a chance of making good bets during the ’70s, a golden age of thoroughbred racing with titans like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Soon “trifecta” was being used to describe pretty much everything that came in sets of threes, especially actors or performers winning awards.
In the 21st century, “gigabyte” is common parlance in tech conversations. (Recall the days of the iPod Touch.) But back when the word was minted—in 1975, according to Merriam-Webster—it was, for most consumers, purely theoretical. After all, back then, most technological specs were measured in terms of kilobytes (or 1/1,024,000th of a gigabyte).
Short-shorts have been around for as long as people have wanted to show off their legs. But the term “hot pants” made its cultural debut in 1970 in the magazine Women’s Wear Daily, where it was used to describe short shorts made from fabrics like velvet and satin. It spawned a new fashion trend, with everyone from Jackie Onassis to Elizabeth Taylor seeing just how short hot pants could get. In 1971, James Brown providing the perfect soundtrack to the trend with his number-one R&B hit “Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Want)”.
Teams have had “winningest” seasons for about as long as human beings have been playing sports. But the first ever team to be described that way, the Maryland-Eastern Shore, were given that honor in 1974, when a local paper in Columbia, South Carolina hailed them as the “winningest college basketball team in the nation.”
“A regular jukebox is for listening,” Daisuke Inoue of Osaka, Japan once explained of his invention. “This would be a jukebox for singing.” His jukebox for singing, which he dubbed “karaoke,” became hugely popular in Japanese bars during the early ’70s, and the craze soon spread around the world. Sadly, Inoue never made a dime from his history-making innovation, but he has no regrets. If he’d tried patenting karaoke, he says, “it never would have taken off the way it did.”
When a married couple gets a divorce, there’s often alimony to be paid. But when a couple has been cohabiting for years but never tied the knot, a breakup can still come with financial responsibilities. “Palimony,” which combines the words “pal” and “alimony,” was first suggested in a California court in 1977 by celebrity divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson. When the longtime girlfriend of actor Lee Marvin was left with nothing after their split, Mitchelson argued in court that she deserved some of his $3.6 million fortune. The California Supreme Court agreed, and Mitchelson called it “the biggest setback for show business since John Wilkes Booth.”
Being “woke”—being acutely aware of social or cultural injustices—might seem like an entirely 21st-century idea (or, if we’re going by the metric of liberal arts campuses, late 2oth-century). Nobody was talking about being “woke” in the ’70s, right? Actually, the whole concept of wokeness originated with a 1971 play by Barry Beckham called Garvey Lives, about the Jamaican-born Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. As one character announces during this groundbreaking piece of theater, “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke. And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”
It’s possible that Post-It notes, one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, have more than one inventor. A scientist named Dr. Spencer Silver accidentally created the adhesive Post-It technology in 1968, which he called a “solution without a problem.” He didn’t do much with it until one of his colleagues, Art Fry, thought the miracle adhesive might work as a way of bookmarking pages. The first Post-It notes were sold in 1977 as “Press n’ Peel” bookmarks, and later rebranded as “Post-Its” in 1979.
Sure, “911” may not technically be a word, but those three numbers placed together translate as only one thing: “Help!” According to the National Emergency Number Association, 911 was first used to make an emergency call in 1968. Then, in 1973—after the White House Office of Telecommunications issued a statement—it became ingrained into the brain of every man, woman, and child. (Fun fact: The numbers 9, 1, and 1 were picked because they hadn’t yet been used in that combination for an area code.)
Nobody raises an eyebrow anymore when you say an activity has given you an “endorphin rush,” but we’d all be in the dark about endorphins if it wasn’t for Choh Li, a chemist from California who first isolated the biochemical from the pituitary gland in 1975 and discovered that, when injected into the brain, it was “48 times more powerful than morphine.”
Just saying the word “asbestos” is enough to strike fear into the hearts of homeowners. But asbestos’ reputation as Public Enemy Number One for clean breathing didn’t really catch on until the ’70s, when the Environmental Protection Agency first started banning building materials containing asbestos. In one decade, “asbestos” went from “What is that? It sounds like a French delicacy” to “Oh my god, get it out of the house, get that out of the hoooouse!”
You don’t have to be from the Midwest to know that people who live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are called “Yoopers.” That catchy name is the result of a contest held in 1979 by the Escanaba Daily Press, asking readers if they could come up with the perfect demonym for the U.P. Some of the names that didn’t make the cut include Skeeter-eater (as in mosquitoes), Michupper, Bush turkey, and Pastian (as in pasty).
When the first Walmart opened in 1962, it was a small mom-and-pop store in Arkansas. By 1970, they changed the name to “Wal-Mart”—presumably to make it more obvious that the store was a “mart” owned by a guy named Sam Walton—and expanded to more than a hundred stores all around the country. Almost five decades years later, Wal-Marts have become nationally ubiquitous. In early 2018, the company changed their name back to Walmart. And if you regularly frequent America’s favorite superstore, be sure you know these 30 Amazing Secrets Only Walmart Employees Know.
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