Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[39] Just What I Choose it to Mean


Here are fifty words which don’t mean now what they meant in the fifties. They illustrate changes in technology and culture; ‘political correctness’; and the different way we live now … Let’s do them … in … alphabetical order.

[Sorry, not a good one for US readers or others outside the UK. There may be lots of differences in meanings, both now and then.]

Actor:               A man who acted. A female in the acting profession would always have been called an ‘actress.’ I don’t know why this distinction has disappeared – now actresses like to be called actors.

Amateur:          Someone who participated in sports just for the enjoyment, without payment. There was a rigid line between ‘amateur’ and ’professional,’ with the implication that amateurs were the ideal. The Olympic Games, Athletics in general and Wimbledon tennis were all for amateurs only. The definitions have changed. Now the AAA and the Olympics both ignore the word.


Awesome:         Wonderful in the sense of instilling awe. Not just ‘nice.’

Billion:             A million million. (‘Trillion’ was a million billion.) The American usage was always illogical but it has now crept into usage this side of the pond.

Bonk:                Hit lightly, often used in a jocular sense. Nothing to do with sex (modern definition).

Boob:                An accidental mistake, perhaps a faux pax or solecism, general used colloquially. Nothing to do with what we now call boobs.


[I have left out some others in the same genre as bonk and boob that I couldn’t possibly admit to knowing.]

Book:                Something made of many pages of paper bound together, generally with a hard cover. Nothing to do with electronic book readers, computers or the Internet.

Bookmark:        Generally a thin strip of paper of leather inserted into a Book to show how far we have read. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet. [I will say nothing of the US word ‘favorite.’ For the same reason I have excluded ‘cookies.’]

Chair:               Something to sit on. Not a chairman, or female chairman, or chairman of indeterminate sex (gender).

[It’s strange that some words like chairman were always used for both sexes, and others like actor and actress differentiated.]

Channel:           A narrow ditch, pipe or conduit. Nothing to do with radio or television.

Cool:                 A temperature less than ‘warm’ but not as cold as ‘cold.’ I try hard, but still fail to understand exactly what this word means now. I think it means what we would have called: ‘nice’ or ‘good.’

Coke:                A smokeless fuel made by heating coal in the absence of air. See [2] Fire, Coal, Smoke and Gulls. Nothing to do with cocaine or any fizzy drinks.

coke Coca_Cola

Contacts:          Things that touched, for example electrical contacts in switches. Not a list of names, addresses and email details. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Epic:                 See Saga.

Friend:             Someone you know well, meet, talk and get on well together with. Not someone you know nothing about who once commented on your Facebook posting, or vaguely knows a friend of a friend.

Gay:                 Jolly, frivolous or joyful. You might do things ‘with gay abandon,’ or you could be a ‘bachelor gay.’ Nothing to do with the modern meaning (which we never talked about).

Gender:                        A grammatical concept, (masculine, feminine or neuter) used only in teaching French or Latin. Presumably applied to other languages. It did not imply sex – but there was a loose grammatical link, males were generally masculine words etc. See [20] Vive La Différence

Green:              A colour coming between blue and yellow in the rainbow. Nothing to do with ecology or politics.

Grooming:        Something done to a horse, brushing it and making it look smart. Nothing to do with computers or sinister dealings on the Internet. And not what we now call personal grooming.

Hit:                   Physically strike something or someone. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Home:               The house or place where we live. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Hot:                  Having heat. The opposite of cold. Nothing to do with popularity, fashion or attractiveness.

Knickers:          See Trousers.

Log:                  A chunky piece of wood to go on a fire, or a Christmas cake decorated like a Yule Log, or an official type of book serving as a diary. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Negative:          A reversed contrast image used as a means to produce photographs. (Or you could look at an eclipse through it!) The word could also be the opposite of positive, as now.

Notebook:         A small book to write notes in! Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Mobile:             Able to move around. Only used as an adjective, Nothing to do with telephones. See [4] My Lovely Mobile!

Page:                A sheet of paper making part of a book, magazive or newspaper. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Partner:            Someone in a joint business venture. Cohabiting couples did not exist. (OK, there must have been some, somewhere, but we didn’t talk about them.)

Password:         A word or phrase said to get past a sentry or army guard. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Port:                 A harbour for ships and boats. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..

Portal:              A kind or doorway. An architectural term. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Post:                 Letters, which we sent through the mail, by putting them in a pillar box. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet. See [37] Car Tax, Family Allowance and Dog Licences


Profile:             A picture showing a side view, generally of a person. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Recession:        When the economic situation went badly. Now those in charge have defined it as meaning two consecutive months when a precisely defined retail price index has a value less than zero. Nothing else is considered a recession.

Regular:           Normal or usual. [Or a polygon with equal sides and angles.] Not of medium size.

Saga:                A long, epic tale, sometimes in the form of poetry, from folklore, for example the Vikings. Nothing to do with crushing candies or other computer games.

Sex:                  The state of being male or female. We filled in forms that said ‘Sex:’ where now we have ‘Gender:’ It did not mean what we now call ‘sex’ (not that we talked about such things then.) See [20] Vive La Différence

Site:                 Where something happened. A building site or a historical site. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Spam:               A processed product made of meat, which came in tins. Generally eaten cold, in salads or sandwiches, or cooked as spam fritters. Nothing to do with modern usage, which seems to have come from the famous Monty Python sketch. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Tablet:              A small medicinal thing to be swallowed, like Aspirin, larger than a pill. Also, a tablet of stone was a large engraved monument or other stone, as used to deliver the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Tanner:             Six pence (6d) or more particularly, the sixpenny coin, or someone who tans leather. Now I suppose it is someone using a sun-tan bed!


Text:                 Anything written, usually in a book, perhaps even a text book! Nothing to do with telephone messaging.

Troll:                A nasty ogre in children’s stories. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Trousers:          A pair of trousers were what you wore. Now it’s a trouser. The female clothing industry changed the definitions just before 2000. Male clothing is doing it now. It applies to pants, knickers, slacks and similar clothing. [‘Scales’ have gone the same way. Watch out for ‘scissors’.]

Twitter:            (And Tweet) The noise made by birds. (A general expression. House Sparrows twitter. Different birds make different noises.) Nothing to do with social media. [If I could put in two word expressions, ‘social media’ would be here!] Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Web:                Something made of fine silk by a spider to catch its prey. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Wicked:            Very evil, as the Wicked Witch. Now it seems to mean ‘very good.’

Windows:         Things made of glass in houses and other buildings allowing light in, while preserving heat and preventing access. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..

Wireless:          Radio, particularly a radio set. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..


And there are many words that didn’t exist then. Here are just a few: AIDS, apps, chairwoman, cling-film, download, Google, hovercraft, Internet, laser, motorway, on-line, onesie, phone-in, software, upload, video, and vuvuzela …

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’              From Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

4 thoughts on “[39] Just What I Choose it to Mean

  1. Pingback: [50] Half a Century | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. Pingback: [94] A Lifein the Day | Remembrance of Things Past

  3. Pingback: [113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well | Remembrance of Things Past

  4. Pingback: [114] It’s only words, and words are all I have | Remembrance of Things Past

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