The Grammarphobia Blog

Into the generation gap

Q: I’m working on a project related to the term “generation gap.” The Web has led me to Jessica Pallington’s Lipstick, which says the phrase dates from 1925. But the book lacks references to substantiate this. I hope you can help.

A: The notion of a generation gap probably dates from the first two generations of humans to walk the earth.

And generations of authors have written about it, from Shakespeare (King Lear) to Turgenev (Fathers and Sons) to Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman).

But you’re asking about the phrase, not the gap itself. And the remark that caught your eye in the 1998 Pallington book, Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic, does seem to refer to the phrase:

“One of the first known references to the ‘generation gap’ came in 1925, when people referred to the gap between generations of mother and daughter being signified by one wearing lipstick and the other not.”

We’ve seen several other references on the Internet to 1925 and the expression “generation gap,” but all of them either cite the Pallington book or use similar language.

It may be that she knows something we don’t, but as far as we can tell the phrase “generation gap” first showed up during the early 1960s. [NOTE: See a 2013 update at the end of this post.]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as “a difference of attitudes and values between people of different generations, esp. parents and children, leading to a lack of understanding.”

The first published reference in the OED is from a July 28, 1962, headline in the Daily Record of Stroudsburg, PA: “Generation Gap Affects Parent-Child Relations.”

We searched several other databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, the New York Times archive, Google Timeline, etc.—and that headline was the earliest citation we could find.

We also searched for “generational gap,” but the earliest example we found was this one from the Sept. 9, 1964, issue of Punch: “The generational gap is even more extended at student level.”

We’ll end this with a Shakespearian flourish. Who can forget King Lear’s words about filial ingratitude: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!”

[Update: On May 31, 2013, a reader in the UK sent us an early sighting of the term “generation gap.” He says, “I’m in the course of reading Goodbye to All That (1929), the autobiography of Robert Graves, and thought you’d like to know that in the first paragraph of chapter 2 he writes: ‘I found the gap of two generations between my parents and me easier, in a way, to bridge than a single generation gap.’ So it looks like that 1925 citation may well be correct.” Graves has said that his autobiography grew from fragments he first began writing in 1916.]

 Check out our books about the English language