The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his 1968 account of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, introduced a number of terms straight out of the drug-fueled counterculture, like Owsley, for “an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD” (named after Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead soundman who manufactured millions of doses of acid). The book also brought us edge city, defined by the OED as “a notional place outside the bounds of conventional society” (“It’s time to take the Prankster circus further on toward Edge City”), and the adjective balls-out, defined as “unrestrained, uninhibited” (“The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown”).
Wolfe was clearly in a neologistic frame of mind in 1970, when he wrote two of his most famous essays. From “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York, we of course get radical chic (“the fashionable affectation of radical left-wing views”), though he seems to have appropriated the phrase from Seymour Krim, who had used it earlier in the year in his collection of essays Shake It for the World, Smartass. And the title of “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” contributed two more coinages: mau-mauing (“using menacing or intimidating tactics against”), and flak catcher (“one who deals with and deflects adverse or hostile comment, questions, etc., in order to protect a person or institution from unfavorable publicity”).
A 1976 New York cover story is responsible for one of Wolfe’s most enduring phrases: “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Along with me decade as his term for the 1970s (“regarded as a period characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with personal fulfillment and self-gratification”), the OED credits Wolfe with a lesser-known expression: hardballer in the sense of “a person who is ruthless and uncompromising, esp. in politics or business” (as in: “Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon Administration, announces for Jesus”).
Wolfe once again picked a title that was destined for lexical immortality when he wrote his 1979 book on the Project Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff. Though the right stuff is actually documented by the OED back to 1748 in the sense of “something that is just what is required” (especially alcohol or money), Wolfe’s book provided a new semantic twist: “the necessary qualities for a given job or task,” that mysterious essence imbuing the test pilots drafted for the Mercury program.
The Right Stuff also helped popularize some expressions that were previously known only in aviation and aeronautics circles. One is push the envelope, meaning “to approach or go beyond the current limits of performance,” which the OED notes had appeared in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology a year before Wolfe brought it to a mainstream audience. Another is screw the pooch, meaning “to make a (disastrous) mistake,” which Wolfe famously used in recounting Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s botched splashdown after becoming the second American in space. The movie version reinforced the notion that Grissom had screwed the pooch, though the malfunction was likely not the astronaut’s fault. (For a deep dive into how screw the pooch evolved from the earlier expression fuck the dog, see my 2014 piece for Slate.)