The 1950s were the decade when youth culture became the dominant culture. Young people were inventing new ways to date, dress, and get around, and they had a unique language to describe their lives. Some slang terms from the era made an impact on the way we talk today, while others were splitsville by the end of the decade. From beatnik to backseat bingo, here are some notable pieces of lingo popularized in the 1950s.
These days, the term beatnik defines the most prominent subculture of the 1950s, but the word wasn’t coined until 1958. That year, columnist Herb Caen added -nik (a suffix derived from the satellite Sputnik, which launched in 1957) to beat to describe members of the Beat generation. A typical beatnik was a free-spirited artist who rejected societal conventions, with American novelist Jack Kerouac being one of the most famous examples.
Originally part of African American Language (a.k.a. African American Vernacular, or AAVE), cool emerged from the jazz scene in the 1940s. In the 1950s, it became mainstream with the youth of America. Anything trendy and desirable—from a fashionable outfit to a catchy song on the radio—could be described as cool.
3. Backseat Bingo
The 1950s saw the explosion of American car culture, and with it came a wave of new car-related slang terms. Backseat bingo referred to hanky panky that took place inside a vehicle. Parking was a less colorful way to describe the same activity.
Though pad can refer to any place of residence today, it had unsavory connotations in the mid-20th century. A 1950s beatnik may have used the term when referring to a place to crash, or a room to use (or recover from having used) drugs.
If a friend said you were the ginchiest in the 1950s, that would have been high praise. Unfortunately, the slang term—which meant “excellent”—didn’t have the same staying power as its synonym, cool.
6. Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’
This phrase can be interpreted multiple ways. Originally, if was someone was “cruisin’ for a bruisin‘” in the 1950s, they were looking for an excuse to pick a fight. Sometime in the 1970s, the meaning changed from cruisin’ to give a bruisin’ to cruisin’ to get a bruisin’. A person insulting their friend with a short temper would qualify for the second definition.
The word dreamboat first surfaced in the 1940s, but it really took off in the following decade. It described any person (usually a man) worth swooning over. Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, and James Dean all qualified as dreamboats.
Adding -ville to the ends of words was a popular practice in the 1950s, and antsville is just one example. Any spot that made a person feel like they were packed into an ant farm—whether it was a movie theater or a sockhop—deserved the designation.
9. Burn Rubber
The complete phrase burn rubber appeared early in the history of the automobile. A 1921 issue of Sunset magazine described a driver moving so fast that he “may burn rubber for ten yards.” Though it originated in the 1920s, the slang term for gaining speed behind the wheel gained new prominence in the car and street racing culture of the 1950s. If the tires created enough friction against the street to create smoke, the phrase became literal.
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10. Vomit on the Table
This phrase was another way to say speak up or spill your guts. Luckily for the easily grossed-out among us, vomit on the table didn’t stick in the lexicon.
11. Get Pinned
Getting pinned was synonymous with “going steady” with a significant other in the 1950s. The dating lingo was literal, as male suitors would offer an actual pin for the object of their affections to wear as a sign of their commitment.
12. Off the Cob
Thanks to the popularity of corny in the Gen Z vernacular, the phrase off the cob (as in corn cob) might be poised for a comeback. It was first used to paint something as overly hokey and sentimental in the 1930s. In the 1950s, it was embraced by Beatniks wanting to seem too cool for school.
13. Climb the Six Foot Ladder
The “six foot ladder” in this euphemism for dying only goes in one direction: down.