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Past Lingo: Exploring Slang Terms from the '60s to the Present

Akshat Biyani
Akshat Biyani

Slang refers to colloquial words and phrases that act as cultural markers, often born out of significant social movements, technological advances, or shifts in public sentiment. When we look back at the slang of past decades, we delve into a unique aspect of our collective history.

In this article, we embark on a linguistic journey through time, tracing the evolution of slang from the rebellious 1960s to our current era. Examining the popular slang of each decade will throw up refreshing insights into the social and cultural dynamics that shaped those periods. 

So, buckle up! It's time to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane and explore how our language has evolved over time.

The 1960s: The Age of Counterculture

1960s The Age of Counterculture

The 1960s were a transformative time marked by significant social and cultural upheavals. From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War protests and the emergence of the hippie movement, this era was one of resistance, liberation, and change. The slang of the '60s reflected this vibrant countercultural spirit.

Here are a few notable examples:

‘Groovy’: An adjective used to describe something pleasing or enjoyable, often related to music.

Example: "That new Beatles album is really groovy."

‘Far Out’: Used to express astonishment at something exceptional. 

Example: "Did you see that Jimi Hendrix performance? Far out!"

‘Flower Power’: This phrase epitomized the hippie movement's ideals of peace, love, and non-violence. It was often seen on protest signs and heard in anti-war chants.

Example: "We need more flower power, not firepower!"

Social and Cultural Context

Expressions like ‘flower power’ became synonymous with peaceful protests and a push for social justice.

Slang in this era served as a form of rebellion, a way to challenge societal norms and express dissent. Phrases like ‘groovy’ or ‘far out’ often signified alignment with anti-establishment ideals and a yearning for peace and freedom. The use of these terms acted like a secret handshake, instantly signaling a shared understanding and support for social reform. They allowed users to connect on a deeper ideological level, efficiently conveying complex societal critiques in a single word or phrase.

The 1970s: Disco and Transition

The 1970s were an era of contrasts and transitions. While the groovy, peace-loving spirit of the '60s lingered on, the decade was marked by turbulent political events like the Watergate scandal and the oil crisis. The rise of disco fever during this time offered an escape that coexisted oddly yet harmoniously with the reality of social and political upheavals. As such, the slang of the '70s was a colorful lexicon that reflected these varied influences.

Notable examples of slang from this period include: 

‘Boogie’: This term is often associated with dancing, particularly the disco dances that were prevalent during this time.

Example: "Let's boogie on down to the discotheque tonight!"

‘Jive Turkey’: This phrase was a derogatory slang term used to describe someone who is deceitful or insincere.

Example: "Don't listen to him; he's a jive turkey."

Social and Cultural Context

Many people lost trust in politics in the '70s, partly because of big events like the Watergate scandal. This created a divide in culture: Some people were very involved in political issues, while others looked for a break from the stress by diving into the fun world of disco and leisure.

Slang expressions like ‘boogie’ encapsulated the era's lighter side and celebrated a culture rooted in music and dance. On the flip side, phrases like ‘jive turkey’ encapsulated the decade's cynical outlook, often used to call out hypocrisy or deceit.

The 1980s: The Decade of Excess

The 1980s were a time of great changes in politics and culture. People were interested in making money and buying things, thanks in part to the policies of President Ronald Reagan in the United States and a growing focus on consumerism. The Cold War was a significant backdrop of this decade, adding tension on the global stage. This was a time when people were excited about life and the future, and the slang of the time reflected this sense of optimism and enthusiasm.

Consider these examples: 

‘Rad’: A short form of 'radical’, used to describe something very good or cool.

Example: "That new movie was totally rad!"

‘Gnarly’: Used to express that something was really amazing but could also be used for something extreme or outrageous.

Example: "That skateboarding trick was gnarly!"

Social and Cultural Context

The 1980s was marked by a strong focus on individual success and consumerism. Policies like Reaganomics in the US encouraged people to focus on earning and spending and fuelled a culture of extravagance.

The slang terms of this decade often celebrated excess and excitement. Words like ‘rad’ and ‘gnarly’ captured a spirit of enthusiasm and a love for the extreme. These terms were a way to express a general mood of optimism that defined the era.

The 1990s: The Dawn of the Internet Age

1990s the dawn of the internet age

The 1990s were a period of technological innovation and cultural shifts. The rise of the internet and home computing began to change how people lived and communicated. Meanwhile, grunge and hip-hop became defining musical genres, each with its own accompanying lingo. The era introduced slang that reflected its unique cultural and technological shifts. The rise of digital communication played a key role in spreading these new terms quickly.

Here are a couple of examples:

‘Phat’: Originally from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), ‘phat is an acronym for Pretty Hot And Tempting. It was used to describe something as excellent or cool.

Example: "That new song is phat!"

‘All That’: This phrase was an affirmation of someone's coolness or attractiveness, and it gained wide popularity through the Nickelodeon show "All That."

Example: "You think you're all that, don't you?"

‘As If’: Popularized by the movie ‘Clueless’, this term expresses incredulity or disdain toward an idea or suggestion.

Example: "As if I would ever go out with him!"

Social and Cultural Context

The 1990s were marked by the internet boom, which changed how information was accessed and shared. This led to the rapid dissemination of slang across different communities and even countries. Grunge music and its anti-fashion stance brought terms like ‘lame’ and ‘whatever’ into the mainstream. At the same time, hip-hop culture contributed expressions like ‘word’ and ‘fresh’ to everyday language. 

The arrival of the internet and the dawn of chat rooms, forums, and eventually social media, accelerated the spread of slang. For the first time, regional expressions started to gain international popularity within a short span. 

The 2000s: Digital Revolution

The 2000s were marked by a plethora of changes, from the global war on terror to the rapid growth of social media and reality TV. These shifts in the social and cultural landscape also influenced the slang of the era. 

Prime examples of slang from this period include:

‘Bling Bling’: A term often used to describe flashy jewelry or accessories.

Example: "Check out the bling bling on that rapper!"

‘YOLO’: Short for ‘You Only Live Once’, used to justify taking a risk or doing something adventurous.

Example: "I'm going skydiving this weekend because, well, YOLO!"

‘Fleek’: Originally used to describe perfectly groomed eyebrows, the term later expanded to signify anything perfect or on point.

Example: "Her makeup is on fleek today!"

Social and Cultural Context

The 2000s saw widespread geopolitical tension, most notably the war on terror. At the same time, the era marked the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the ubiquity of reality TV shows. These changes offered new avenues for slang to be developed and spread. 

Technology also played a significant role in the development of new slang during the 2000s. The internet and social media introduced terms like ‘DM’ (direct message) and ‘selfie’, and also made it easier for slang to travel beyond its point of origin. Words and phrases could go viral overnight, making the 2000s a dynamic time for linguistic creativity.

The 2010s: The Age of Social Media

The 2010s will be remembered as the age when social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram dominated personal interactions and also had a lasting impact on language. New slang terms popped up frequently, thanks to the real-time, global conversation these platforms enabled.

‘Lit’: A term used to describe something amazing or exciting.

Example: "This party is lit!"

‘Savage’: Used to describe an act that is considered bold or straightforward, often with a hint of ruthlessness.

Example: "Did you hear her comeback? That was savage."

Social and Cultural Context

The decade was marked by significant social movements like Black Lives Matter and the push for LGBTQ+ rights, both of which also influenced the slang of the time. The internet culture, with its memes and viral challenges, became a hotbed for slang that quickly spread from niche communities to mainstream usage.

Social media acted as a catalyst in shaping and spreading slang. Whether it was viral tweets or trending hashtags, these platforms accelerated the adoption of new terms and allowed them to bridge cultural and geographical boundaries faster than ever before.

The 2020s: The Pandemic Era

The 2020s are defined by a worldwide event that has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life: the COVID-19 pandemic. This period, although still unfolding, has already produced a unique set of slang terms that encapsulate our collective experience.

‘Doom Scrolling’: The act of continuously scrolling through social media or news feeds that are filled with negative or distressing information.

Example: "I need to stop doom scrolling; it's affecting my mental health."

‘Quaranteam’: A group of people who have agreed to limit their social activities to only each other during the pandemic.

Example: "We've formed a quaranteam to minimize exposure to COVID-19."

‘Zoom Fatigue’: The exhaustion felt from overusing virtual platforms for meetings or social interaction.

Example: "After back-to-back Zoom meetings all day, I've got serious Zoom fatigue."

Social and Cultural Context

Aside from the pandemic, the era is also marked by heightened awareness of climate change and social justice movements. Protests and activism have brought phrases like ‘climate emergency’ and ‘social distancing’ into the mainstream, expanding our pandemic-era vocabulary even further.

Crises often accelerate change in various areas, and language is no exception. The pandemic and the shift to remote interactions have created new words while also changing the way we use existing ones. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom have given rise to terms like ‘Zoom fatigue’,  and also reshaped how we communicate, including the slang we use to describe our new reality.

The Ever-Evolving Tapestry of Slang

As we journey through the decades, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Slang is far more than just a collection of trendy terms. It's a living, breathing reflection of our times, something that captures the essence of each era's social issues, technological advancements, and cultural shifts.

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Unlock the subtleties of slang from the past and present, and gain the confidence to seamlessly blend into any social or formal setting. Witness the Immigo difference with our 7-day free trial!

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