The 1950s Slang Phrases That Defined The Decade
It’s a universal truth that each new generation of teens invents its own slang. And it’s also true that each generation thinks the slang of the previous generation is trite, corny and even embarrassing. Certain words are like fads, and saying “groovy” out of season will make you seem like a real turkey. That’s why so much 1950s slang has gone so out of fashion.
The 1950s were the heyday of the Silent Generation, those born before and during World War II, when the United States was both at the height of its power while also launching into a Cold War. The modern idea of the ’50s is that it was a buttoned-up time when everyone believed in family values and “the American way.” This is a pretty skewed reality, largely focused on the white middle class.
If you look at the slang that was popularized during the 1950s, though, you see a more interesting story. Look no further, because we collected some of the ginchiest 1950s slang phrases.
Popular 1950s Slang That’s Worth Knowing
Meaning: a child, particularly a misbehaving one
Watching an old show like Leave It to Beaver, you might think all children were generally well-behaved back in the ’50s. Yet, as ever, kids back then were mischievous little critters, earning the name “ankle biters,” because kids were small and so have easy access to ankles. You know, for biting. It’s also sometimes paired with another phrase that became popular around the same time: curtain climbers.
The phrase can actually be traced back to a different century’s ’50s: the 1850s. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, though, that it started to enter the average American’s lexicon. You might even still hear it today, though it might be in reference to a type of stock on the stock market.
Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’
Meaning: looking for trouble
Threatening someone with a rhyming phrase might not seem very intimidating, but this phrase could pack some punch, literally. This is a phrase to let someone know if they don’t change what they’re doing, they’re going to get bruised. Likely by the speaker’s fists.
The phrase has somewhat uncertain origins. One of its earliest printed uses is in a 1945 newspaper article about the U.S. Army-Navy football game, where the writer said the Navy team is likely “cruising for a bruising.” It likely was in use earlier than that, however, and originated from Black English. It was in the 1950s, though, that the phrase became more widely known.
Meaning: a means of addressing someone else
Is there any 1950s slang that has aged quite as poorly as “daddy-o”? The phrase is attested to as far back as at least 1949, and was originally used among jazz musicians to show camaraderie on the stage. As often happens, the slang invented by Black Americans quickly spread, because it sets the standard for “cool” in the country.
It didn’t last too long, though. If you tried to say hello to someone with “Hey, daddy-o” in the 1960s, there’s a pretty good chance they’d think you were a cop.
Meaning: a youth subculture characterized by a slicked-back hairstyle
Before there were hippies, there were greasers, a different youth subculture that arose out of disillusionment with the American ruling classes and popular culture. They were rebellious, usually working-class and associated with sexual promiscuity. It’s believed that the culture grew out of the post-War motorcycle gangs, which would explain why one of the most defining style choices among greasers was the leather jacket. The idea of greasers today has been sanitized by pop culture, particularly the shows and movies from the 1970s that looked back on the ’50s with nostalgia, like the musical Grease and the character of Fonzie on Happy Days.
While the subculture thrived during the 1950s, the term “greaser” goes back to a slur for Mexican and Latin Americans in the mid-19th century. Later, it was also used to describe the Italian immigrants coming to the United States. While “grease” is clearly a reference to the hairstyle of the youth, it’s probably no coincidence that many greasers were also Italian Americans and Mexican Americans.
Meaning: a drive-in movie theater
The drive-in movie theater is one of the most common images of the 1950s, and they were certainly at their most popular during the decade. They were a great place to take a date, because the freedom of cars allowed people to take part in a communal event (watching a movie) while also having some privacy. As you can imagine, these places were hotspots for making out. Or, you know, passion pits.
Drive-ins still exist, but with teenagers having more privacy today than they did back then, they’re not quite the passion pits they once were. You’re more likely to hear the phrase in reference to the “indietronica” band that formed in 2007.
Meaning: a useless or dim-witted person
The word “turkey” itself has a very long, weird etymological history. It’s a bird named after a different bird named after a country it isn’t even native to. And that all happened before it took on its slangy meaning.
In 1927, the word “turkey” was used to describe a theater production as a flop. The thinking might have been that turkeys are an unintelligent bird, and so too are the Broadway shows that failed. From there, it evolved in meaning to apply to anything that people thought was ineffective or useless, and by 1951 it started being used to describe people. Soon, yelling “You turkey!” at someone was an accepted part of 1950s slang.
Meaning: a multipurpose suffix that turned a noun or adjective into an imaginary place
While words and phrases are common in slang, suffixes are a bit rarer. The habit of adding -ville after another word came into vogue in the 1950s, and it produced some memorable slang.
- Antsville — a place very densely populated, so it looked like an area overrun by ants
- Coolsville — a place that was, well, cool
- Deadsville — no, this wasn’t a cemetery, but just a place that was boring or unpopulated
- Weirdsville — another obvious one, this is just a place that’s weird
While this has fallen out of fashion, it can be fun to come up with your own. You can even mash it up with modern slang and see if you can create a trend.