Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Talking Like It's 1969 and You're Living in Watts

My favorite course at the University of Arkansas in 1969 was an upper-level essay writing course that taught the discipline of structured writing and showed the rewards of writing regularly. The instructor was Harriet Jansma, who had a welcoming enthusiasm and pleasant openness that inspired confidence that our essay writing efforts would be judged by an appreciative audience. I remember the course with much pleasure.

This essay writing course came to mind recently when I excavated a couple of handouts from it. One handout provides the definitions of slang words that were being used during the last two years of the 1960s. The other handout has definitions of slang used in Watts, a large residential district of Los Angeles inhabited mostly by African-Americans, in the late 1960s. Watts was famous at the time for the wild riots that occurred there in 1965 with extensive burning and looting.

The slang definitions were taken from an academic journal, Current Slang, published by the University of South Dakota. I assume the handouts were provided to us to help with the language we used in our essays.

Looking at these 1969 slang words, it is fun to try to recall if they were words that I used at the time. Do I  still use them?  What slang words do I not recognize? What happened to them?

Many of the words in these two handouts have been fully incorporated into the English language so that now we no longer think of them as slang.  A much smaller number of words in the handouts have disappeared from the language or have changed their meanings.

This list of words reminds us of the dynamic nature of the English language and how it grows both richer and poorer over time as words are added and other words fade away.

Part 1:  Current Slang of the American Language, 1969

Ace                       n.  A skilled performer.
                              -He’s an ace in pool.      

                              v.  To perform well.
                              -I think I aced that test.

All-nighter             n.  A long, difficult job; a cram session

Axe                       n.  Guitar

Bent out of          adj.  Angry; dissatisfied

Blow…mind         adj.  To lose control.

Boss                    adj.  Good; the right thing; especially a good sound.

Cold turkey          adj.  Unprepared.
                              -He took that history test cold turkey.

Cop out                v.  To change intentions
                              -He’d like to cop you on that party.

Cut a trail              v.  To leave.
                              -We’d better cut a trail before the counselor comes.

Dog                       v. To contribute an inadequate performance; to give less
                                that the best.

Drop back and      v.  To try a new strategy after a setback; to try again

Fink out                 v.  To disappoint
                              -She really finked out on her date.

Freaked out          adj.  Acting abnormally

Funky                    adj. Relaxed; informal
                              -We wanted the bar to be a funky place.

Greaser                n.  Gangster; “hood”; a shady type
Gross                    adj.  Displeasing, unpleasant, crude
                              -That guy’s jokes are really gross.

Grossed out          adj.  Disgusted
                              -I’m really grossed out at this exam.

Grunge                 n.  A bad, unpleasant thing, especially food.
                              -Did you see that grunge we had for supper?

Hacked off          adj.  Anger

Hang it there        v.  To keep struggling

Hang loose          v.  To relax; to remain calm

Lunchbox             n.  A simpleton

Metrecal              n.  A process of treatment used on self-important people;
Shampoo              the cure for fatheads.
                           -What he needs is a metrical shampoo.

Nurd                     n.  Someone with objectionable habits or traits; 
                                 an affected person; a “dud”
Out of …trees     adj.  Insane; confused

Out of sight         adj.  Beyond belief

Out to lunch        adj.  Conceited; snobbish

P.G.A.                   n.  Pure grain alcohol

Rack                     n.  Body
                              v.  To sleep

Rah-rahs              n. saddle oxfords

Rally                     v. To attend a party; drink; to have a “wild time.”

Saigon tech         n.  Vietnam; Vietnam war.

Suck suds             v.  To drink beer.
                              -Let’s go suck suds.

Tough                   adj.  Attractive; perfect.

Turn on.               V. To become enlivened, usually for a short period of time.

Up tight               adj.  Sophisticated; “cool”

Uptight                adj.  Nervous; worried

Unreal                  adj. Unbelievable
                              -It was an unreal time.   

Whole-hog          adj. Enthusiastic

Zilch                      n.  A nobody

Zonked                 adj. Drunk
                              -He was really zonked last night.

The above definitions came from Current Slang, vol II, no 4; vol. III, no. 4; and volume IV, no. 1, 1968-69; Department of English, University of South Dakota.

Part 2:  Slang of Watts (Black neighborhood in Los Angeles), 1969

Acid                      v.  LSD (Drug user’s jargon)

Babe                     n.  A girl

Bad News            n.   An uncomfortable or dangerous situation; 
                                 an untrustworthy person.
        - That bar was bad news.

Bag                       n.  A problem.

Barge                   n.  A big car; a Cadillac

Bastille                 n.  Jail

Beautiful              adj.  Pleasing, nice.
                           -It’s beautiful the way the people work together.

Black.                   n.  A Negro. A work preferred by the new nationalist groups.

Black power        n.  A slogan used to advocate the sharing by Negroes of 
                              economic and political control in the United States

Broad.                  n.  A woman

Broke                   adj. Without money

Bug                       v.  To bother

Bug out                v.  To drop out; to leave; to quit

Charlie                 n.  Caucasian

Chitterlings           n.  Soul food; intestines of a hog or a pig to be cooked slowly

Chuck                  n. Caucasian male

Clod                    n.  A stupid person
                              -Harry has flunked every test, he’s such a clod.

Cool cat               n.  A person with whom there is immediate rapport; 
                                one who is in with the crowd.
                             -All the cool cats were at the jazz scene.

Cool head            n.  A person who treats people well; someone who does 

Cool it                  interj.  Stop what you are doing

Crash                    v.  To go to bed; to go to sleep
                              -I really crashed after the party last night.

Creep                   n.  A strange person

Cut out                 v.  to leave a place.
                              -I think it’s about time to cut out.

Devil                     n.  A Caucasian

Dog                       n.  An unattractive woman.

Dough                   n.  Money

Dud                       n.  A joke intended to be funny which falls flat
                              -He’s always telling duds, and it gets tiring hearing
                                the same old stuff all the time.

Fink                       v. To tell on

Flake out              v.  Fall asleep
                              -Bill has flaked out.

Flat                       n.  A house; an apartment

Fox                        n.  An attractive girl

Foxy                      adj.  Attractive, sexy.

Fuzz                      adj.  Police

Go lurking            v.  To go joy riding
                              -I went out lurking last night.

Grapevine            n.  A chain of gossiping people.
                              -You said you heard it through the grapevine.

Grass                    n.  Pot, marijuana.

Groovy                 adj.  Excellent, smooth, wonderful

Hip                        adj.  Informed on current events
                              -He is hip. He knows what’s happening.

Keep your cool      v.  To stay calm

Kicks                     n.  Excitement; fun; a daring experience; shoes
                              -You’ve got a hole in your kicks.

Maintain your         v. To keep a level head and to stay calm in a time of 
Cool                        turmoil or disagreement.  
                               - Man, you best maintain your cool or Joe will busy your 

Mod                      adj.   Modern, in the fashion.       
                              -Everybody’s going mod, why don’t you get hip.

Out-to-lunch         adj.  A person who does not take drugs.  
                              -He is out to lunch.

Pull someone’s       v.  To expose someone’s reputation or activities

Punk                     n.  A person, usually a man, who is no good.

Put me on             v.  To tease

Soul                       n.  Awareness; feeling; sensitivity; the spiritual bond felt 
                              by Blacks for each other. Rarely said to describe 

                              -He has soul:  he knows things; he’s tuned in.

Soul brother         n.  Used by one Negro to another whether or not they are

Soul food             n.  Good fresh food which has neither been canned or frozen. 
                             Often refers to pork, greens, black-eyed peas, and 

Souling                 v.  Playing an instrument well.
                              -Man, he is really souling on the trumpet.

Soul Language      n.  Idioms and slang used by Negroes between themselves.

Soul minority        n. Negroes. Used by Negroes to describe themselves.

Soul sister            n. Any female Negro. Used to describe a Negro in the 
    same situation as yourself. She may be a friend, or
    acquaintance, or even a stranger.
Soul sound           n.  Good music. Harmony which appeals to Blacks

Soul talk               n.  Meaningful conversation among Negroes.

Spade                   n.  Negro

Threads                n.  Clothes

Too much            adj.  Very nice.
                              -That is just too much

Tube                     n.  Television

Weird                   adj. Different; square; hippie; homosexual

Yen                       n.  A craving for heroin (Drug user’s jargon)

Definitions from Current Slang, Vol III, No, 2, 1968.


  1. An interesting list!

    The Oxford English Dictionary has launched an appeal to find examples of "low rider" earlier than 1968:


    A snippet from Google Books suggests "low rider" was defined in a 1967 "Current Slang":


    But Google often gets the dates wrong. I wonder if you could confirm if it's in any of your copies. It would be particularly interesting to find out if it is in the "Slang of Watts" section, as another OED appeals contributor (username: Bryn_OED) has found some early examples linking the term to the 1965 Watts Riots.


  2. Thank you for the comment. This handout did not include the term "low rider" in the Slang of Watts. I don't know if the instructor who gave us the handout included all of the terms included in the journal article from which the words were taken: Current Slang, Vol III, No, 2, 1968. Perhaps the journal article had a longer list, including "low rider."

    The search for a word origin is such a challenge. Good luck with the search for the first use of the term.

  3. This is very interesting and can help in teaching English, especially the detriment that slang has on English usage. I personally think slang and abbreviations are bad in most cases. I define slang as short for "sloppy language".

    1. Thank you for your comment, though I disagree with you to some extent. When I read the list slang used in the '60s, I am amazed at the number of words that have stuck around and even become part of standard conversation. It seems to me that slang tends to be vivid, sometimes provocative, sometimes evocative and thus enlivens discourse. Fortunately the most sloppy and offensive slang usually gets discarded after a mercifully brief existence. (I certainly agree that the use of abbreviations and excessive use of acronyms interferes with good communication and is a sign of sloppy thinking and/or laziness.)

  4. It really is incredible how many of these have stuck around - there are only a handful I've never heard, and even fewer whose meaning has changed drastically from what's listed here. Super interesting; thank you for posting this!