27 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms
The ‘80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your boombox, and let’s motor!
According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word above.
2. Big Whoop
In the early 20th century, someone might have expressed their dismissiveness of something by using the phrase big deal. But in the 1980s, they went with big whoop, which was apparently formed by combining the word big with whoop, “A cry of ‘whoop’, or a shout or call resembling this, used to attract attention, as a summons, or to express derision, defiance, support or encouragement, etc.,” per the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED traces its first citation to 1984, while The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English has 1981.
According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”
The etymology of the word buff, meaning “a muscular body,” is uncertain; the OED posits that it might be related to the verb buff, as in “To impart the velvety surface usual in buff leather for belts, etc.” One thing we do know for sure is that it made its debut in print in 1982’s Valley Girls’ Guide to Life: “Well, dudes have got to be totally buf, first off, before you even talk to them.”
It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the OED, the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
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7., 8., and 9. Gazillionaire, Bazillionaire, and Buttload
We have the ‘80s to thank for these slang words referring to people who have a lot—like a lot a lot—of money. The OED dates gazillionaire to 1980 and bazillionaire to 1987. Just a year later, the similarly defined buttload debuted in Richard Rayner’s book Los Angeles Without a Map.
This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, ’cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.’”
In the late 19th century, a foodist was a proponent of a particular diet; later, the term was used to refer to people who knew a lot about food. Other terms, like gastronaut, have been used to describe the same type of person over the years, but the term that ultimately won out was foodie, which appeared in New York magazine in 1980.
Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”
13. Eat My Shorts
That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.
This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).
15. Take a Chill Pill
When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early ‘80s.
According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”
17. Gag Me With A Spoon
This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).
Butt-face, which the OED defines as “a term of abuse for: an unattractive, annoying, or contemptible person” is another word popularized by Hughes and The Breakfast Club. It’s possible Hughes was inspired by the earlier 1970s adjective butt-faced.
Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”
20. Adios Amoebas
In the late ‘80s, kids on college campuses took the phrase adios amigos and turned it into adios amoebas.
Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: “How are you feeling?”
Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,’ which means disgusting beyond belief.”
This term for “a bizarre or freakish person,” according to the OED, made its debut in print in a dictionary of slang from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984. It defined the term as “person involved in the ‘new wave’ or ‘punk rock’ music movements.”
A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”
In college campuses in the late ‘80s, the word butter had nothing to do with food in the cafeteria. Instead, it was slang for anything that was particularly uncool.
To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”
As a noun, wannabe popped up in 1976 but really took off in the 1980s; in 1986, the Washington Post described a character in a play as “A morbid Madonna-wannabe fascinated with tabloid tales of bizarre deaths.” The OED clocks wannabe’s use as an adjective back to that year as well.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.