Oh Man, Now That’s Cool!

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?

The Post Office, It Is a’Changin’

The U.S. Postal Service has been in the news lately. It is deep in debt and as the world of communications expands, the need for its services has greatly changed since we were boomer youngsters. The Postal Service holds a special place in the hearts of boomers. We grew up listening to tunes that chronicled delivery service: from Please Mr. Postman to Return to Sender; I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter to The Letter. Mail was one of those “givens” for us, like television and the telephone. Now Congress must consider methods of scaling back the once mighty monopoly to suit 21st Century needs.

There were two historical events that happened to the U.S. Post Office during the boomer years, to which many of us haven’t given a second thought. One occurred on President Richard Nixon’s watch in 1971, when the Post Office became an independent agency. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson had established a cabinet post for the Post Office Department (as it was then called) and asked the then current postmaster general, William T. Barry, to take the take the cabinet post. He was later replaced by Amos Kendall, who became an advisor and speechwriter to the president in addition to his postmaster duties. President Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act on August 12, 1970. As an independent agency, the Post Office Department then became the Postal Service, and the Cabinet post was eliminated when the law went into effect on July 1, 1971.

The second, and perhaps the best-known element of Post Office history to boomers, was the introduction of ZIP Codes. The Post Office had issued zone numbers to cities since 1943. (Note Elvis singing, “…no such number, no such zone,” in his famous rendition of Return to Sender.) By the early 1960’s however, a new system was needed to take full advantage of the latest high-speed optical readers. In order to sort mail quicker and more efficiently to serve the expanding amount of mail produced by a growing population (that means us, boomers), human intervention had to be minimized. The system that was developed consisted of a grouping of five numbers that gave an indication of the state, county and town or city in its numerals. It was called ZIP Codes, with ZIP being an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan.

Once ZIP Codes had been firmly established, the Post Office began building a series of sectional centers where mail could be pre-sorted, relieving municipalities of the burden of sorting large quantities of letters. The optical readers printed a bar code that broke down the code further, with each sorting step ultimately bringing the letter to the closest Post Office to complete the delivery.

By 1963, bulk mailers were using Zip Codes at a near 100% level. After all, the Post Office could require them to do so for delivery. Residential customers were another story. They weren’t adopting the new system fast enough. Some surmise it was an undercurrent backlash over the perceived depersonalization that had begun as machinery took over many traditionally human jobs: “I am not a number, I am a free man,” as Patrick McGoohan’s character proclaimed in The Prisoner. As a response, the Post Office introduced Mr. ZIP in commercials and posters on July 1, 1963 as a friendly reminder for people to add the codes to their letters and packages. People took to the Mr. ZIP character right away, and the rest is boomer history. The use of Mr. ZIP was retired in 1986.

Sign with "Mr. ZIP" on a hotel letter drop. Note the sign is dated May 1963, presumably the printing date, which is just two months before the introduction of the character. Photo is in the public domain as a work of the U.S. Federal Government.

 

Mister Boomer recalls seeing the character inside the Post Office when he visited with his mother. It was also ubiquitously present on the cancellation mark over stamps for several years. As a youngster, he didn’t give it much thought. The ZIP Code system happened right around the time his family got their new, all-digit phone number. Now, as an adult student of 60s culture, Mister B marvels at the simplicity of the drawing, with its thick black lines and slightly off-kilter geometric forms. In the beginning, Mr. ZIP was just a head. Quickly, the Post Office added a body. The shape was thin and rectangular, often drawn showing the character in motion with a carrier bag, as indicated by the “speed lines” boomer kids remember from cartoons.

Mr. ZIP is thought of as one of the most successful advertising promotions of all times. It was the perfect embodiment of the 60s art style that spoke to a generation, making them comfortable with a system they were reluctant to embrace. (Maybe it’s time to revive Mr. ZIP. After all, how many of us are using the ZIP+4 system that was introduced in the 1980s?)

What memories of Mr. ZIP and the U.S. Post Office come to mind for you, boomers?