20 Bits of Groovy ’60s Slang
By Jake Rossen
When it comes to defining an era, cultural scholars often look to the fashion, music, and trends. But if you listen closely, you’ll find that what’s emblematic of a decade is found in how people spoke to one another. While slang of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s is all unique, the peace and love aesthetic of the 1960s helped redefine modern language. Here’s what people had on the tip of their tongues during that decade. (Besides LSD, we mean.)
You can thank the notorious Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang for bringing bummer into the lexicon. According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the noun was originally used to describe “any unpleasant experience, depressing circumstances.” (The phrase riding a bummer, which popped up in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to “a bad trip on a motorcycle.”) It soon spread to describe a bad drug trip, whether you were part of a biker crew or not.
Fab, short for fabulous, was imported to the U.S. right along with The Beatles circa 1963. The band was known as the “Fab Four.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the group also popularized the phrase moptop to describe their shaggy hairstyles, which were in sharp contrast to the conservative cuts of the ‘50s.
3. Flower Power
The rise of the counterculture hippie movement in the ‘60s that preached love over war quickly led to a noun to describe the group’s influence: flower power. The phrase stemmed from the flowers the iconoclasts often wore to demonstrate their pacifism. Devotees were flower children or flower people; hippies were also known as the flower-power generation. The noun youthquake also appeared in the mid-1960s to further describe the movement.
4. Sock It to Me
To sock it has long meant to hit one (literally or figuratively) with harsh news or a high price. In the 1960s, the popular variety show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In turned it into a catchphrase, one that meant “exhortation.” The phrase was considered so hip that getting stodgy then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon to agree to appear on the show in 1968 to do a line reading was the ultimate in comedy. (Nixon would sock it to the American people with Watergate just a few years later.)
Yes, this term comes from famed Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart, whose last name was turned into a verb. To bogart was to act with aggression, as the actor often did as a private detective in films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. It was also used to criticize those who took more than their fair share, especially when monopolizing a shared marijuana cigarette—a reputed character trait of Bogart in real life. To bogart a joint was to be exceptionally rude.
Something dirty, filthy, rarely-washed, or otherwise revolting was considered grungy. A 1960 Hartford Courant article attempted to get readers up to speed: “The next time you describe something you really like, call it ‘wiggy’—something very bad is ‘grungy.’” The noun grunge had a similar definition, while grunger referred to a person. (Urban grunge was also used to refer to the New York Dolls’ music in the 1970s, and grunge alone would become shorthand for the so-called Seattle sound of flannel-clad bands like Nirvana.) One could also use groady, which came from grotesque.
7. Boob Tube
The uptick in color televisions in the 1960s helped grow a national television audience, which also gave way to concern that TVs were inviting too much passive engagement. The phrase boob tube received lots of play in the 1960s, though it dates back to at least 1957. It was used to describe the sets and their subjective lack of quality content. Glad they worked that problem out.
8. Freak Flag
When ‘60s outcasts wanted to wave their nonconformist views, they were said to be waving their freak flag high. The term likely originated with Jimi Hendrix, who used it in his 1967 song If “6 Was 9.”
When something was marvelous, it was call it marvy for short. The word was used both positively and negatively, with unpleasant experiences labeled marvy (or marvie) with a cutting tone.
10. Can You Dig It?
Are you picking up on someone’s point or vibe? Then maybe you dig it, a term that dates back to the late 1930s. A version of the phrase can you dig it saw an early printed mention in 1963 in a book review in the Independent Star-News of Pasadena, California.
Zit is so common and so timeless it seems like it came right out of a medical textbook. Instead, it sprung from the slang of the ‘60s. Green’s doesn’t have a definitive source (the OED points to a 1965 advertisement), but it’s clear teens first started using zit to describe a persistent blackhead during the decade. They also used zat, zitz, and zort, but only zit has stuck.
12. Catch Some Rays
When you wanted to work on your tan in the late 1960s, you’d say you were going to catch some rays. Sunbathers would also cop, get, grab, or soak rays. By 2002, the phrase was being used as a farewell salutation: Have fun! Catch some rays!
Fashion plates wearing the latest styles used the adjective a-go-go to describe their contemporary sensibilities. A 1960 Daily Times newspaper piece noted that “In Paris, tubular sweaters that come down to your thighs are dubbed sweaters a go go. Germany now has pajamas a go go.”
14. Golden Oldies
What happens when a decade has nostalgia for another decade? They turn to phrases like golden oldies, which surfaced in a 1960 Arizona Republic article and was used to describe an older song or film that’s still popular in the current era. It likely sprung from the name of a radio show broadcasting older hits.
A verb meaning “to choose the most beneficial item or outcome available,” cherry-pick came into use from the earlier colloquial use of the noun cherry-picker, which dates back to 1940.
For centuries, hacker was a noun for a tool that could chop up a tree. In the 1930s, it came to mean a bad golf player. But in the 1960s, it became a term for a person attempting to access a telephone network without permission, as someone tried to do at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963. Today, it’s synonymous with computer network infiltration.
When someone is making unwelcome advances, it’s called sexual harassment. In the 1960s, offenders were labeled handsy.
18. Getting the Munchies
While munchie has been used to describe a snack food since the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the idiom getting or having the munchies took hold. Then and now, it describes the hunger brought on by marijuana consumption.
19. Power Trip
The OED dates power trip back to at least 1968, when Newsweek described a person they were profiling as being “on a constant power trip,” or giddy with their own authority.
This adjective that describes something cool, hip, and happening is synonymous with the ‘60s, but it didn’t originate there. Groovy actually dates to the 1930s, when musicians were said to be in a focused state of mind while playing, or when something was thought to be excellent in general. It’s since taken on a kind of postmodern meaning and is used today to derisively and ironically refer to outdated culture of the ‘60s. Bummer.
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