25 idioms that were common in the '70s

Published 4:30 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2023

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

25 idioms that were common in the ’70s

From the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, there has been no shortage of periods in history that have shaped society in terms of scientific discovery, cultural contributions, and political discourse that paved the way for revolution.

When it comes to more recent history, the 1970s were known as a time of significant cultural and political expression—from the clothes that were in fashion to major protest movements, not to mention the birth of entirely new genres of music. Included on a long list of things to come out of the ’70s that are now part of our lexicon are the idioms that were most common at the time.

Stacker compiled a list of 25 idioms that were among the most common in the 1970s. From phrases popularized through television to terms that originated from the political landscape of the era, these idioms played a role in the molding of a generation.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

An idiom, in essence, is a fancy word for slang—terms, phrases, and words that seem to encapsulate the generation from which they came. The Strauss-Howe generational theory describes “a recurrent cycle of same-aged groups with specific behavior patterns that change every 20 years.” On the basis of this theory, every 20 years a group of people come along who will inevitably share a similar set of beliefs as well as political, spiritual, or cultural awakenings. Through that logic, the slang terms or idioms from that time follow along the patterns of those particular awakenings.

While those of us born in the generations following this era may look back at phrases like “jive turkey” as nonsensical or confusing, people will look back at more modern phrases such as “it’s lit” in a similar way 20 years from now. When it comes to the idioms of the ’70s, we’ve had 50 years to process through the logic of them.

A good portion of this list was heavily influenced by Black culture, which tends to be the case throughout most of modern history. During the ’70s, the Civil Rights Movement had a major impact on the way mainstream media, film, music, and television as a whole were presented. If nothing else, the following list can shine a light on just how long and how deep that influence has gone.

Read on to see if you recognize any of these far-out phrases. Who knows—you may end up discovering a new term to add to your own vocabulary.

Richard Roundtree in Shaft.

Michael Ochs Archives // Getty Images

Jive turkey

When it comes to the kind of person you don’t want in your life, a “jive turkey” should be at the top of your list. The phrase itself means someone who is less than honest, who is jerking you around or yanking your chain—whichever way you’d like to look at it.

While the phrase comes from “jive”—a term in the ’40s that referred to a particular dance—”jive turkey” became popularized through the 1971 movie “Shaft” starring Richard Roundtree, a popular blaxploitation film about a smooth-talking detective with a penchant for breaking the rules. The phrase carried on to further notoriety in the ’80s through the popular TV sitcom “The Jeffersons” where you would often find George Jefferson hurling the insult at anyone who got on his nerves.

Two people shaking hands at the office in 1975.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

Square biz

When you hear the phrase “square biz,” you may start singing the Teena Marie hit song of the same name in your head—but the origin of the phrase itself stems from the 1970s. If someone brought up square biz in a conversation, it was them letting you know that they were for real, that you were in this together. While the term “square” on its own meant boring, square biz took that concept and gave it a far more positive slant.

A woman in a colorful blouse sitting among daisies.

J. Dellaccio/ClassicStock // Getty Images

Flower power

The generation that came from the ’60s and ’70s was one that was considered pivotal in the counterrevolution movement. From their staunch stances on racism, sexism, and classism to their intrinsically anti-war sentiments, this era spawned a wealth of slang terms that referred back to their political beliefs. One of the most well-known idioms, however, that remains somewhat relevant to this day is “flower power,” which refers to the countercultural “hippies” who believed that peace and love were the solutions to the world’s problems.

While the specific inspiration is unknown, it appears to be tied to the infamous 1967 March on the Pentagon demonstration. In a photo seen around the world, protesters were captured placing flowers into the barrels of rifles held by members of the National Guard who had been called in to guard the Pentagon.

Playboy Bunnies wave as Hugh Hefner's private jet Big Bunny lands.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


This is one of those slang terms that lived—and died—in the ’70s. The prior decade ushered in the era of “free love,” a catch-all phrase that referred to everything from the freedom to express one’s sexuality to the freedom to break the conventional rules of love and marriage, and so much more. Through this cultural shift, the popularity of Hugh Hefner’s iconic Playboy brand soared, and the term “bunny” was born of the brand’s well-known mascot (both in cartoon and human form)—the Playboy Bunny. The phrase referred to a woman who was considered sexy and alluring. When Playboy’s popularity dwindled, so did the phrase.

A sad clown in 1977.

ClassicStock // Getty Images

Freaky deaky

This is one of those phrases that continues to hold a firm grip in the lexicon of pop culture, considering the 2022 single by Tyga and Doja Cat of the same name. It dates back as far as the ’70s and is said to mean “weird and unusual but in a good way.” While the meaning may have morphed and taken on additional translations over time, this is another idiom that seems to be deeply rooted in the counterculture of the time. The phrase also inspired a song by Roy Ayers and is also the title of a detective novel steeped in counterculture lore by Elmore Leonard that was adapted into a film in 2012.

The Commodores perform on the TV show "Soul Train."

Soul Train via Getty Images

Brick house

It may not seem like the phrase “brick house” was something that inspired a body positivity movement, but considering the idiom is in reference to the celebration of a woman and her curves, it may have unknowingly sparked something. The concept is rooted in the idea that a woman who is built with a little more curve on her is stronger, sturdier, and more “stacked.” The phrase became even more popular after The Commodore’s hit single “Brick House” came out in 1977, singing the proverbial praises of curvaceous women around the world.

A happy couple laughing together at Coney Island in May 1970.

ClassicStock // Getty Images


Regardless of how you spell it, if you were born in the last 50 years you more than likely recognize the term—and in some instances, have had it yelled at you by a friend (or foe). The simple one-word idiom became popular as a shortened term to let someone know that they were getting played—that they had been successfully duped. The phrase comes from the word “psychology” and refers to the idea that someone is playing mind games on you.

Detroit police officers in June 1978.

James L. Amos // Getty Images

The man

Over the years there have been plenty of slang terms used to indicate authority figures, and when the ’70s hit, the phrase “the man” became the idiom du jour. Indicating anyone who holds the power to oppress someone else, the phrase joined the ranks of “the fuzz”, “pig,” and “12” as one of many ways to refer to oppressive members of society in positions of authority.

Two children walking down a country lane in 1972.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

Keep on steppin’

Luckily some phrases are pretty self-explanatory so historians won’t have to dig through the muck and mire of years gone by to understand them—and “keep on steppin'” is definitely one of those phrases. The phrase could be used both positively and negatively depending on the context of the delivery but in essence, it meant the same thing—to keep moving forward. If you were using it positively, it was a way to say that no matter what obstacles you were going to continue to move forward and step over them. If you were saying it negatively? Well, let’s just say that whoever you were saying it to needed to move away from you—and quickly!

Michael Beck, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Terry Michos, Marcelino Sánchez, Brian Tyler, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh in The Warriors.

Silver Screen Collection // Getty Images

Can you dig it?

“Can you dig it?” is one of those phrases that, read outside of context, must come off as a little odd because it seems as if someone is asking you to get out there and dig a hole for them. In reality, the phrase is yet another on this list that was influenced by Black culture and was further solidified in the iconography of the ’70s through the 1979 cult-classic film “The Warriors.” The phrase itself essentially means “Do you get what I’m saying?” and uses the visual of digging as a way to indicate someone getting to the root of what another person was talking about.

Richard Nixon holding a press conference in 1974.

Bettmann // Getty Images

Deep six

The phrase “deep six” has a meaning that seems far closer to “can you dig it” than our previous slide—at least in terms of literalness. “Deep six” is a phrase that became popular during the ’70s thanks in large part to the Watergate scandal. On one of the tapes, someone is overheard saying they need to “deep six” the files that could incriminate them. The origin of the phrase seems to lie in a nautical ideal in which someone is buried at sea—the watery version of “six feet under.”

Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer (drums), Steven Tyler, and Joe Perry of Aerosmith on "Midnight Special" in Burbank, California in June 1974.

Jeffrey Mayer // Getty Images

Dream on

Another phrase that is pretty self-explanatory is “dream on,” a snarky way of telling someone that whatever it is that they are dreaming of, they better keep dreaming because it isn’t going to happen. It is also the title of Aerosmith’s 1973 classic hit, so apologies in advance if you’ve already started (attempting) to hit Steven Tyler’s world-renowned high notes upon reading this. If you didn’t? Maybe you should.

A cardiac surgeon examining a child at a hospital in 1974.

United Archives // Getty Images


One of the fascinating things about language is how the meaning of a word can change over time; it can evolve or devolve, or it can be discovered to be slightly problematic. The more we learn, the more we go back and discover things that may have seemed silly then but seem prejudiced or biased now. The phrase “spaz” falls into that category. The phrase is a derogatory term that indicates someone is malfunctioning, on the fritz, or throwing a fit. But considering the origin of the term comes from a medical condition that can cause uncontrollable seizures that can be debilitating to a patient, time revealed the ableism at the root of the phrase.

Hippies spending time together in 1970.

Universal History Archive // Getty Images

Space cadet

“Space cadet” came about as a way to describe someone who was so high they were floating off in space, separate from the rest of the world, unaware of what was happening around them. With the rise of the counterculture, the usage of marijuana and a variety of other drugs such as heroin, opium, and psychedelics was far more common during the ’60s and ’70s, in part as a coping mechanism for soldiers coming back from Vietnam.

Two children smiling on a sled.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images


To be stoked, or not to be stoked. That was never the question in the ’70s as the goal at the time was to always be “stoked,” which was just a newfangled way of saying that someone was excited about something. Had a concert you were going to? You were “stoked” about it. A new partner that gave you butterflies? You were “stoked” over having that kind of love in your life. It seems to come from the original root of the word which means to stir up or rouse and was usually referencing the embers of a flame.

Bernardine Dohrn of the Weather Underground and colleagues address the media.

Bettmann Archive // Getty Images

Guilt trip

Another phrase that continues to be popular to this day is “guilt trip” which seems to date back to the early ’70s. Basically meaning someone is trying to force you into doing something by way of making you feel bad if you don’t, the first published reference of the phrase dates back to Bernardine Dohrn, a member of the radical political group The Weather Underground. Dohrn printed the phrase in a 1970 paper produced by the group. While she may not have coined the term, it appears this was the first reference to it in print.

Spanish cyclist Luis Ocana shaking hands with other competitors, Herman Van Springel and Bernard Thévenet in Paris, on July 22, 1973.

AFP via Getty Images

Gimme some skin

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, there were quite a few idioms that referenced ‘skin’ within their phrasing. While there doesn’t seem to be a specific reason or pinpoint, certain phrases definitely seem to be more connected to the community they come from. This includes the phrase “gimme some skin,” another phrase born of Black culture that lets someone know you want them to shake your hand, give you some dap, or bump fists. Whatever generational version you recall, it all links back to a sign of affection—like a sign to let someone know “I see you”.

A heavy goods vehicle on a highway in 1978.

Harold M. Lambert // Getty Images

10-4, good buddy

Before the internet, social media, AOL chat rooms, and Reddit there was the booming popularity of CB Radio. Typically used between truckers who were traveling across the country as a means to keep in communication, CB radio began to take on a new life in the ’70s, becoming a popular hobby across the world. The phrase “10-4, good buddy” is born of that era and was just a friendly way to let someone know that you heard and understood what they said.

American boxer Ken Norton giving peace signs in March 1974.

Bettmann // Getty Images

Peace out

The era of the counterculture movement placed a heavy emphasis on the concept of peace. They followed the belief system of passive, nonviolent protest as evidenced by the origins of the idiom “flower power.” Through that movement, the idea of peace not only became a thing to strive for, but it was also a thing introduced into the daily vocabulary as a way to push the message. Thus “peace out” was born as a simple but powerful way to say goodbye to someone.

A cannabis plant.

NurPhoto // Getty Images


This popular term was used similarly to the way “space cadet” was used but with a slightly more negative twist. While “space cadet” evokes a sort of happy, floating person detached from reality, a “burnout” was a way to indicate someone who had floated far beyond space and had reached a dangerous level—one in which their brain had completely fried from drug use. In the beginning, it was apparently a phrase pointed more towards people who smoked pot but quickly branched out to include anyone whose mind had been addled by drugs.

The silhouette of someone smoking a joint.

VIEW press // Getty Images


Speaking of drugs, the phrase “primo” is another one on the list that comes from not only the counterculture era but also a time in which marijuana was becoming a hot commodity. When you were out “looking to score” some, “primo” was a way to let people know that you were looking for the best of the best—the highest quality product. In later years, with the rise of cocaine use, the term also referred to a joint that was laced with coke.

People's Temple follower Larry Layton stands with police following his arrest in Jonestown.

David Hume Kennerly // Getty Images

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Much like the term “spaz” mentioned earlier in this list, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is one that over time has come to feel far more problematic and sinister than it was originally intended. The phrase itself refers to the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in which 900 people died after ingesting a poisoned drink (which by the way wasn’t Kool-Aid, but rather Flavor-Aid) at the behest of cult leader Jim Jones. The phrase was meant to show someone had blind loyalty and faith, despite the apparent warning signs.

A person steadying the bike of a friend learning how to ride.

Scott McPartland // Getty Images

Do me a solid

Any time someone utters the phrase “Can you do me a favor,” no matter how much you care for the person, the automatic response is to cringe. In the ’70s however, there was a much cooler way to ask someone to do something for you—and that was “do me a solid”. While the phrase seems to date as far back as the jazz era of the 1920s, as with many things, the phrase made a return in popularity during the ’70s and is still used to this day.

Forward Marvin Barnes #24 of the Spirits of St. Louis facing center Billy Paultz #5 of the New York Nets during an American Basketball Association game at the Nassau Coliseum circa 1975 in Uniondale, New York.

George Gojkovich // Getty Images

In your face

During the 1970s, basketball was steadily gaining in popularity. A phrase that likely emerged from that time is the popular “in your face,” which has remained a classic burn to this day. With an origin that comes from the invasion of personal space between opposing players, you can still hear this simple three-word insult uttered across courts—and the world in general—in modern times as a way for someone to assert dominance in competitive sports.

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong backstage in 1972.

Michael Putland // Getty Images

Cool beans

The true origin of the phrase “cool beans” seems to be one that has caused a bit of debate over the years, but what seems to be certain is that whoever first said it, it became popular during the late ’60s and 70’s as a way for someone to express that something was good. According to some lore, the popularity of the phrase grew because of the stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong, who used the term during either one of their films or comedy albums—though which one is still up for debate.

Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Abigail Renaud.