Say What?

By Jeff Little


Ever wonder what Bruce Springsteen meant when he referred to a "deuce" in his hit song Blinded by the Light? Well, you wouldn't be alone. But aficionados of 50's slang were never puzzled. They had the answer all along.

Deuce is a 50's slang term for any of the Ford Model B vehicles and most commonly used as a nickname for the 1934 coupe. Many know it best from the Beach Boys' 1963 hit Little Deuce Coupe but the car was also featured years later in George Lucas' film American Graffiti.

Even though Lucas' tag line for American Graffiti was "Where were you in '62," the film was riddled with slang that originated in the 50's. Not unlike the Beach Boys and Lucas, most people held onto many of the colorful phrases from the rock 'n' roll era and still use many of them today.

Calling a movie a "flick" is not at all uncommon. Saying someone is going to "flip" when referring to a state of over excitement is not used as often but is still understood by most. But several other once commonplace terms from the 50's are seldom recognized today.

The D.A. is a fine example of outmoded slang. But in the 1950's most everyone knew that the initials were a reference to a then popular hairstyle. D.A. was a more genteel way of saying "duck's…er, uh…posterior."

Also fallen by the wayside are phrases such as "got it made in the shade" (referring to a guaranteed success and later shortened to "got it made"). And when was the last time you heard someone say, "What's buzzin', cuzzin'?" (abandoned for the now common "What's happening?")?

Granted, there are also many bits of 50's slang that are now scarcely heard but still easily understood when spoken. Phrases like "rag top" (a convertible automobile) and "hip" (cool) being two prime examples. But some of the most colorful words and phrases of the era have all but disappeared, just like the sources that spawned them.

In the 1950's, television played the most noticeable role in affecting slang in everyday American life. And just like today, as the shows faded away so did their figures of speech.

Just one example (and probably the most profound) of TV's assault on the English language was the slang that emanated from a weekly series on ABC television. 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964) featured detective drama, action and a character named Gerald Lloyd Kookson III. Played by actor Edd Byrnes, "Kookie" (as the character came to be known) changed the speech patterns of American youth in a way that wouldn't be matched until the 1970's when ABC introduced another character called "Fonzie" on its hit show Happy Days (1974-1984).

With terms like "ginchiest" (best, coolest) and "smog in the noggin'" (muddled thinking), "Kookie" had a somewhat brief but large impact on the slang of the country's youth. But not surprisingly, the cancellation of shows like 77 Sunset Strip also cancelled the use of their slang, allowing everyone to move on to the next fad.

And what will the next trend in slang be? Only time (and the media) will tell. But you can be sure that when the next popular phrase does arrive, all the "hep cats" will be using it.

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1934 Ford Model B Coupe

American Graffiti Writer/Director
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