Reaching the half-century mark, from the vantage of human life, is a noteworthy event: whether greeted with dismay or celebration, it's a milestone that we don't often let pass unnoticed. Words, on the other hand, tend to have much longer lifespans than we do, and being a 50-year-old can be considered hardly noteworthy at all; indeed, to the likes of words like betoken (first cited in 1175) or birthday (first cited in 1580), marking a mere 50th birthday may betoken nothing worth mentioning. What does a 50-year-old word feel like? Let's have a look at some words that are currently noted for their first appearance in print 50 years ago, in the heady days of 1960.

A great headliner word that fills the bill is cat suit. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate spells it catsuit and the OED says cat-suit, but both these dictionaries agree that it first shows up in black and white in 1960.

Adrian777 BlackLatexCatsuit (Creative Commons license)

Lest you conclude from this, however, that 1960 really was the gateway to the fun, frivolity, and folderol that characterizes the 1960s for many, another garment also got its first print appearance that year: lab coat.

NASA image in the public domain

Several other compound words show up in 1960 that, while no longer having that new word smell, strike us as mainly being products of modern times and feeling about fifty today. All of them suggest the conveniences or trappings of modern life: these are dinner theater, golden handshake, health spa, theme park, and valet parking.

The only surprising one of these to us is house call. Its original and persisting denotation is, as the OED puts it, "a visit made to a patient in his own home by a doctor, chiropodist, etc." The term has long since gone into extended use to denote a visit by any sort of service professional to a home or place of business, as can be seen in this sample of citations from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

Most of us today can only dream of a chiropodist who makes house calls, and this has lent the term an air of nostalgia, a Norman Rockwell feel, if not straight back to Currier & Ives – which would lead us to have guessed that house call was in fact much older than 1960. What did we call doctor's visits to the home before then? We don't remember them being so much a part of a doctor's routine that they didn't need a particular name.

You may not think of 1960 as being quite in the digital age, but there were signs that it was coming. Mag tape makes its first print appearance in 1960, as does software, according to the OED (though Merriam-Webster claims to have a citation from 1958). The OED also dates both computerese and computerize to 1960; M-W, again, claims a slightly earlier appearance for the verb. The mainframe was still a few years away and the personal computer may not even have been a twinkle in its inventor's eye at this point, but bionics, COBOL, and magnetic disk all first enjoyed the limelight of the printed word in 1960.

Trend-setter, which both the OED and M-W date to 1960, is another word that doesn't feel exactly new today but that has overtones of today's media-saturated and media-driven living. The synonyms provided in the VT, taste-maker and fashion arbiter, suggest that there was certainly an available slot for what has become the preferred term today – although taste-maker is only a few years older than trend-setter.

Perhaps the most interesting of the words first appearing in print in 1960 are the slang words. They make a strong argument that in the word world, the conditions of birth play a defining role in one's future, and that social mobility for words, if it exists, operates on a glacial time scale. New slang words in 1960 are still slang words today: cockamamie, klutz, kook, and the British phrasal verb sod off. To our ear, none of these words sounds either new or ancient today, which is pretty much what you look for in a 50-year-old. Is kook an exception? In our circle it tends to be used much more by the over-70 crowd than the under-30s, and that gives it a bit of an older-generation patina.

Cockamamie is a particularly interesting word that gives no prima facie clue that it is related to the word decal – but as decal's wordmap shows, there is this other word, decalcomania, lurking in the background, which is the parent of both decal and cockamamie. Decal is in fact only a back-formation from decalcomania, the original English term for the technique of transferring an image by moisture, heat, or pressure from one surface to another. The process, originally French, hit American shores in the 19th century and quickly became a craze.

Boston Directory, 1868. Public domain image (from Google)

Because the paper trail goes a bit patchy in places, dictionaries qualify the connection of decalcomania to cockamamie with "perhaps" and "probably." The story goes like this: in the 1950s, comic strip characters were placed on decals for marketing to children, under the easier-to-pronounce and catchier cockamanie, which seems to have morphed very soon to the more reduplicative cockamamie. A Google Book search on cockamamie turns up a number of interesting citations, including entries in various books about language in which the origins of cockamamie are speculated upon.

Two other words with a 1960-vintage label point up the imprecise nature of word-dating in the digital age, and the fact that determining a definitive date for any relatively new word is a continuing work in progress. Merriam-Webster dates both fraudster and junk food to 1960, while the OED's first citations for these words do not come until the 1970s. We contacted an editor at Merriam-Webster, Ilya Davidovich, who helpfully supplied their very convincing citations for the words. Ilya notes: "As far as the discrepancy between our dates for these words and the OED's citations, it is worth noting that both entries are still "Second Edition" entries in the OED.  When the rolling updates reach F and J, respectively, I imagine that the gap will be closed."

Readers of the VT's front page will already be aware, from many of Exec Producer Ben Zimmer's researches, of the sport of antedating English words in print, and it's likely that a few of our 1960 words will be found at some point to have shown their faces a bit earlier in print. For now, however, we wish them all Happy Birthday, and many more years of service.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 1st 2010, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Robert V. (New York, NY)

Great post. It's interesting to note how quickly some of those words have passed from the scene. COBOL? Seems like ancient history. Dinner Theatre? I know it exists out there somewhere, but clearly it's day has passed.

However, a jem like cockamamie will never pass us by.

Robert Vellani, PhD
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
My mom (born in 1907) fell in love with "kook" and "kooky" — in fact, she often used them to describe me. I always thought she borrowed "kooky" from the TV show "77 Sunset Strip," which had a character named Kookie. It debuted in 1958.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
The list of required clothes when I went to school in the late 1940s inlused an artist's smock and a lab coat.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
"included" - apologies.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I enjoyed this piece very much--1960 doesn't seem to long ago to me!! Yet I notice that most of the words cited are two word phrases--house call valet parking, golden handshake--not new words. It seems to me that a brand new word like bionic (though formed from an ancient stem) is a more noteworthy event than a new combination of words.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 2:26 PM
Comment by: Barbara M.
Orin, What a fun read with reminders of conversation and my 1960 h.s. graduation. Even now, merely pronouncing the word cockamamie brings a smile. A great way to deal with frustration. I may begin to use it again.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
‘House Call’ sounds so lovely to my ears, as I recall our beloved doctor, who was the doctor of our suburb. But she was not the doctor of our suburb only, most importantly she was my doctor, (from birth until I finished high school), that’s how I was considering her, my doctor, a doctor I adored and still do, more so now when I realize in retrospect that she was not only an extraordinary physician (my mother told me that she saved my life when I was a 9 months old baby) but also an extraordinary psychologist. We all called her with an enormous respect Madame Hershcovich. I would be in my bed and refuse to go to school once a year (nobody on earth would turn a blind eye on my ‘illness’ for more than one day a year, but they would all do so for one day when I would want to paint – that’s something I realize now, when I think about it, because pretending to be sick was never successful more than once, as I recall- which makes me think that adults know when a child reaches some kind of a limit), but I would not say that I do not want to go to school. I would say that I am sick and I would put on my night table all the drugs one uses when one has a cold. My mother would ask me ‘you do not feel well, do you?’ and then would call our doctor who would give me a certificate for one day because I was sick. Now, when I think about it, I am very much inclined to think that they both knew that I really did not have a cold, but that extraordinary physician and psychologist, knowing me so well, would have known that sending me to school that day would have been a waste of time. I would have learned nothing that day because my mind would have been somewhere else, with my colors. So she would allow me to be with my colors! Where physicians not wonderful in old days? I miss the old days and the wonderful physicians that could read their patients’ minds. Happy birthday House Call and Wonderful Physicians, wonderful because they knew that one day away from whatever was compulsory would help their patients to function for another 364 day.
Thank you for triggering wonderful memories, memories about times when people loved people.
Wednesday September 1st 2010, 8:21 PM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
My doctor growing up in Michigan, who definitely made housecalls, had the name M.D. Comfort, M.D. I always thought his parents were incredibly foresightful.
Thursday September 2nd 2010, 7:18 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Fun to read! Can't figure out why "cockamamie" is a funny word, but it is, as is "kook" and "kooky." I remember "Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb," too, but I THINK I remember hearing the word "kook" before that. But I always assumed it grew out of the very old word, "cuckoo," which we who were teenagers in 1960 certainly were throwing around as an insult as children, and maybe that's what I'm recalling as earlier than the television show. Ken Kesey's _One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest_ surely gets its irony from the ubiquity of that word to mean "crazy" (you'd never insult someone by calling them "insane") 50 years ago. Could "cuckold" also be related? A "cuckold"--a man whose wife cheated on him--was long considered a figure of fun--most of us encountered the word first in Chaucer. But now I'm wondering if just the SOUND is part of the triviality and ridicule implied in all these words. Recently a very serious news story out of Rancho Kookamonga (spelling?), California, brought a guilty smile, because I could only think of Bugs Bunny.
Thursday September 2nd 2010, 7:24 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
And, of course, it was Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, I was connecting with Kookamonga. His railroad conductor character on Jack Benny's show dragged out the word Koooooook-kamonga as the last of the stops he rattled off on the train's schedule. Wasn't there a comedian who used "cockamamie" a lot? I remember it most clearly in the phrase "cockamamie scheme."
Thursday September 2nd 2010, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I was one of that old-fashioned, rapidly disappearing breed called "country doctor" who served the medical needs of a small rural community in Michigan. Although a "house call" was rare, I still made them.
There was a respect and forgiveness that accompanied such service which has become ever more rare with the changing practice of medicine. Involvement and control by third parties in our "modern" society has degraded some of those most precious possibilities in the relationship between doctor and patient.
As yet, I have not written my own book on the subject, but I'm sure it will be filled with nostalia.
Thursday September 2nd 2010, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Jessica A. (Woodbury, MN)
COBOL!! Just the word transported me back about 20 years to times spent trying to debug the massive payroll program written in COBOL!! Having multiple pages of text spread open so that you could track the beginning of a routine to it's "period" that ended the routine!!

Loved the article!
Friday September 3rd 2010, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Haydeen
Good stuff. I learned some. When 'kook' entered I recalled my mother using it in the 50s when I was in my teens. Linking her use to some TV program seems likely as we got one in 1950.
I wondered why Orin included this 'exception.' When I read 'older generation patina' I was at first impressed at this subtle perception, but then I wondered if it was rhetorical, meant to evince erudition.
I used the thesaurus for 'rhetorical' but did not find the meaning I intended: 'for effect'

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