Every generation has its slang. Some words seem to sprout up spontaneously to spread across a population, while others tend to carry over from decade to decade. The use of slang during our boomer years is no exception, though the sheer quantity of phrases and slang words that help define the time may be unparalleled in history.
The dichotomy of the tumultuous sixties was echoed in the language of the time. In terms of slang, the beginning of the decade was more like a continuation of the 1950s, being greatly influenced by the Beat Generation and the speech of jazz musicians. The latter half is when things began to radically change, as countercultural movements in music, fashion, drugs and anti-war sentiment all placed a colorful stamp on American English. Words, especially in the latter half the 1960s, appeared faster than you can say, “Can you dig it?” (itself a phrase that may have its origins decades if not centuries before).
Through the expanding slang lexicon of the 1960s, however, Mister Boomer peppered his daily speech mainly with two words, at least one of which has remained current in today’s culture: man and cool.
From song lyrics to TV shows, movies to street corners, man has been chronicled as an inherent part of the speech pattern of the boomer decade. Its origins may go back decades, as most associate its popular use with musicians in the 1930s and ’40s (i.e., “Man, that cat can swing!”). It was then picked up by servicemen from World War II, then by the Beat Generation, and brought to the culture at large.
The definition of man was rather generic — and like a lot of slang, depended on the usage to ascertain its full meaning. Often spoken at the beginning or ending of a sentence, it could be used to punctuate the phrase with an emotion like surprise, delight or disbelief. “Man, that was groovy!” would therefore have a different inflection than, “The Man is incapable of listenin’, man.” In general, man was either a question sent out to all within earshot (i.e., “did you hear what I said?”) or an exclamation that could have been a shortened form of mankind (as Robin might have said, “Holy mankind, Batman!”) However, as just noted, man was not to be confused with The Man, which was used as a term of disapproval for a person in authority, especially a “fat-cat” employer or government official. (That is, “working for The Man every night and day,” or “The Man is out to take away your freedom, man.”)
On The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Maynard G. Krebbs (Bob Denver) espoused the slang of his adopted persona as a member of the Beat Generation. Words such as daddy-O and nowheresville tended to fade through the sixties, but man and cool persisted.
Cool, on the other hand, appears to have an extremely long history. As such, it is one slang word that could very well be the longest-lived one that we speak today. Surely there are instances noted in movies, interviews and music where cool is used, especially by jazz musicians in the 1920s and ’30s. Some word historians point to cool being used in Shakespeare, and phrases such as, “cool as a cucumber,” or “one cool customer,” were common at the turn of the century. Still others say cool was used in some slang form as far back as Beowulf. The usage of the word where the meaning is most associated with that used during the boomer years and on to today — i.e., from a detached sense of style and sophistication to something of the highest order — appears to have spread quicker in post-war America as the Beat Generation dispensed it in poetry, performance and speech.
For a young Mister Boomer, the words he had heard in neighborhood conversations eventually seeped into his brain and became part of his daily vocabulary. “Man, it was cool” would therefore completely describe a neighborhood teen’s tri-carb GTO to a group of schoolyard friends, who in turn could really dig where he was coming from.
Slang can differ from culture to culture, across economic strata and even neighborhood to neighborhood in Mister Boomer’s experience. But as children at the dawn of the Media Age, how could we not consume that which would make us cool, man?
Of the dozens of groovy, far out words that arrived in our youth, what slang has stuck with you all these years, boomers?