Mainstream is a very common expression mainly used, both as an adjective and a noun, in its figurative sense to refer to:

  • the prevalent attitudes, values, and practices of a society or group the common current thought of the majority.

According to Etymonline:

  • also main-stream, main stream, "principal current of a river," 1660s, from main (adj.) + stream (n.); hence, "prevailing direction in opinion, popular taste, etc.," a figurative use first attested in Carlyle (1831). Mainstream media attested by 1980 in language of U.S. leftists critical of coverage of national affairs.

According to Ngram the expression became more and more popular since the mid 50's, probably with the diffusion of mass media. The term is currently often used in a good number of fields such as music, science, sociology, politics, education etc. to indicate the prevailing trend , but what was the initial context ( in the 50's) where this expression was first consistently used? Or was it just a common term that easily and quickly spread to all direction without a precise context?

  • 1
    Easily half the current uses in print are as "mainstream media", a term frequently used as a pejorative by the Right in the US. Beyond that, the origin of the term is clearly obvious, and likely has been invented and reinvented multiple times.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 19, 2015 at 12:34
  • The Americana hit is misdated by Google: if you look at the snippet you will see internal evidence that it cannot be earlier than 1964. Feb 19, 2015 at 12:36
  • @Hot Licks - I am not asking about its origin, which I postet in my question, but the context within which the usage of the term literally took off in mid 50's.
    – user66974
    Feb 19, 2015 at 12:40
  • Mainstream in US education means pertaining to those who do not fit into a narrower specific category, such as English language learners or special education. It is synonymous with "general education." Feb 19, 2015 at 14:07
  • It seems to have evolved from "mainstream of the ST" to "mainstream of ST" to "mainstream ST" over about two decades. I have found a few earlier figurative usages of the first form going back to the 40s. - books.google.com/books/… 1944 Arts and Archetecture
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 25, 2017 at 16:52

3 Answers 3


"Main stream", as two words, used in a figurative sense, goes back to 1921, at least:

An English Anthology of Prose and Poetry, Shewing the Main Stream of English Literature Through Six Centuries

Around 1960, "mainstream" took over from "main stream":

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(While uses of "main stream" prior to about 1920 tended to be in the literal river sense, few after that time were.)

It is a natural metaphor, and does not appear to have been strongly associated with any particular political/social movement -- I find uses with science, religion, economics, music, art, literature, et al. And the term has a special meaning in education, where "mainstreaming" refers to placing a "special needs" student in "normal" classes, to the extent possible.

"Mainstream media" didn't really take off until the mid 80s, though Ngram does find one pejorative use in 1958. It's hard to categorize the uses of this term -- it was not often used in the hard-right pejorative sense until the late 90s, but earlier uses were often associated with criticisms of the coverage of women's rights and racial equality issues.


For what it's worth, OED has a specific entry on the figurative use in this sense.

  • the prevailing trend of opinion, fashion, society, etc.

The earliest citation is from 1599, as two separate words.

1599 Warning for Faire Women ii. 3 You have..by gradations seen how we have grown into the main stream of our tragedy.

As a single word in 1938:

1938 F. M. Ford Let. Oct. (1965) 302 The very considerable influence that Mr. Pound..exercised on literary mainstreams.


It cannot be the media but it has got to be related to a 'unifying' event across the world - 'world wars' definitely should be the one. The world was 'bothered' about what it would have considered 'mainstream' event (especially WWII) and it could have considered say Indian independence as 'fringe events'. The United Nations would have been interested in the mainstream events and not surprisingly we see a reference here 'The United Nation in the Mainstream of History' dated 27 April 1956.

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