How Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials Got Their Names

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iStock

In March, the Pew Research Center revamped their definitions for who gets counted under what generation. But who decides what those generations are named, if they get a name at all? Surprisingly, there isn’t one single clearinghouse where these names are chosen. Instead, generations frequently receive multiple names that then battle it out until only one remains—a process that is currently being fought between the likes of iGen, Generation Z, and Post-Millennials.

Although it’s not clear which name will come out on top for the current generation, older group names generally involve one writer picking a term and then a bunch of other writers all coming to some crude form of consensus—with a couple of failures along the way.

BABY BOOMERS (1946-1964)

Calling a dramatic increase in the number of children born a “baby boom” dates to the 19th century. In 1941, an issue of LIFE Magazine—discussing the increasing birthrate due to older couples having children after the Great Depression and the many marriages that came about because of the peacetime draft of 1940—proclaimed that “the U.S. baby boom is bad news for Hitler.”

The children who would come to be known as Baby Boomers, however, wouldn’t be born for a few more years as soldiers returned home from the war and the economy “boomed.”

Although the children born from 1946 to 1964 get the name Baby Boomers, that phrase wouldn’t appear until near the end of the generation. In January 1963 the Newport News Daily Press warned of a tidal wave of college enrollment coming as the “Baby Boomers” were growing up. That same year, the Oxford English Dictionary quoted the Salt Lake Tribune as saying “Statistics show that ... long hours of television viewing put an extra strain on chairs, causing upholstered seating pieces to wear out three to four times faster than in the days before television and the baby-boomers.”

Oddly, an alternate name for people born during this time was Generation X; as London's The Observer noted in 1964, “Like most generations, ‘Generation X’—as the editors tag today’s under 25s—show a notable lack of faith in the Old Ones.”

GENERATION X (1965-1980)

That comment in The Observer was in reference to a then-recently published book called Generation X by Jane Deverson and Charles Hamblett. A few years later, Joan Broad bought a copy at a garage sale, her son found it, and he fell in love with the name.

That son was Billy Idol, and according to his memoir, Dancing with Myself, “We immediately thought it could be a great name for this new band, since we both felt part of a youth movement bereft of a future, that we were completely misunderstood by and detached from the present social and cultural spectrum. We also felt the name projected the many possibilities that came with presenting our generation’s feelings and thoughts.” The band Generation X would begin Billy Idol’s career.

But the name Generation X wouldn’t become associated with a wide group of people until 1991. That's the year Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was released. The book became a sensation for its ability to capture early '90s culture and, although it didn’t coin the words, helped popularize a range of terms as diverse as McJob and pamphleting—and a name for an entire generation.

MILLENNIALS (1981-1996)

What comes after Generation X? Generation Y, obviously. That was the logic behind several newspaper columns that proclaimed the coming of Generation Y in the early '90s. (While the magazine Advertising Age traditionally gets the credit for coining the term in 1993, it was actually in use in 1992.) But as psychologist Jean Twenge explained to NPR regarding the failure of “baby busters” as a term to describe Generation X, “Labels that derive from the previous generation don't tend to stick.”

Instead, in 1991 authors Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote Generations, which included a discussion about the Millennials. According to Forbes, they felt that as the oldest members of this generation were graduating high school in 2000—and everyone was focusing on the coming date—Millennials seemed a natural fit.

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

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iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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Which Language Did English Borrow These Words From?

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