16 Words That Are Much Older Than They Seem

iStock.com/SanneBerg
iStock.com/SanneBerg

Every generation likes to think it invented slang anew, but often the latest words are actually very old. Here are 16 words that have been around much longer than you might think. (The example quotes all come from the Oxford English Dictionary.)

1. Friend, as a verb

A common lament in pieces about “kids these days and their social whatsawhozits” is “when did friend become a verb?” The answer is: Sometime in the 1400s, if not earlier. In the earliest examples of the verb friend from the OED, it just means "to make friends." You could go to a place, and friend some people there. It also had the meaning of helping someone out, being a friend to them, e.g., “Reports came that the King would friend Lauderdale,” an example from 1698.

2. Unfriend

If you could friend someone, it was only natural, according to the productive rules of English word formation, that you could unfriend them too. The word shows up in this example from 1659: “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.”

3. Dude

In the 1880s, dude had a negative, mocking ring to it. A dude was a dandy, someone very particular about clothes, looks, and mannerisms, who affected a sort of exaggerated high-class British persona. As one Brit noted in 1886, “Our novels establish a false ideal in the American imagination, and the result is that mysterious being ‘The Dude.'” To those out west, it became a word for clueless city-dwellers of all kinds (hence, the dude ranch, for tourists). By the turn of the century it had come to mean any guy, usually a pretty cool one.

4. Dudery

Where dude goes, dudery follows. The OED equates it with dudeism, meaning "dudish behavior, attitudes, or character; the quality of being a dude." In 1941, one Ohio newspaper noted, "Spats were a curious aberration. They didn't really look well .. but for many years they were symbols of dudery."

5. Hang out

Hang out has been used as a verb for passing the time since at least the 1830s. In the Pickwick Papers (1837), Charles Dickens wrote: "I say, old boy, where do you hang out?"

6. Puke

Puke has been around since the 16th century. While it is often claimed that Shakespeare invented the term, puke has been found in earlier sources. It meant then what it means now, to vomit. But it also used to be a causative verb, meaning to make someone vomit with a tonic or potion. Your doctor might have you purged, bled, and puked for your own good.

7. Hipster

Hipster shows up in a 1941 dictionary of “hash house lingo,” meaning “a know-it-all.” The words hip and hep had been around since the early 1900s with the meaning of being up on the latest and knowing what’s what.

8. Babe

Babe in the sense of “hot chick” can have a very 1970s ring to it. But this meaning of the term has been around since the early 1900s. The OED gives a quote from 1915: “She’s some babe.”

9. Funky

The application of funky to music came around the 1930s, but the “strong smell” sense had been around long before that. Since the 1600s, funk was slang for the stale smell of tobacco smoke, and by extension, anything that stank. Cheeses, rooms, and especially ship’s quarters could be described as “funky.”

10. Outasight

Does outasight bring to mind a '60s hippie? Or maybe a '40s big band leader? Instead, imagine a Victorian chap in waistcoast and top hat. The earliest citations for outasight come from the 1890s.

11. Frigging

No frigging way! Frigging has been around since the late 1500s, though it originally referred to masturbation and would not have made your sentence sound any more polite than it would have with that other word that frigging usually replaces. Since the beginning of the 1900s it has served as the more family-friendly substitute for that other word. In this 1943 quote, it can be seen in action alongside a few other ingenious substitute words: “This shunting frigging new arrangement ... has got every flaming thing foxed up.”

12. Booze

Booze has been general slang for alcoholic drink at least since the 1850s. It has a longer history as a Middle English verb bouse, meaning “to drink excessively,” that became a part of thieves’ and beggars' cant in the 1500s. It was still a word respectable people might not be familiar with up until the 20th century, as illustrated by this quote from 1895: “She heard some men shout that they wanted some more booze. Mr. Justice Wright: ‘What?’ Mr. Willis: ‘Booze, my lord, drink.’ Mr. Justice Wright: ‘Ah!’”

13. Fanboy/Fangirl

The application of fanboy to comics and science fiction had to wait until the '70s, but before that, there were sports fans, and in 1919 the paper in Decatur, Illinois reported that, “it was a shock to the fan boys when Cincinnati ... beat the Chicago White Sox.” The first citation for fangirl is from 1934: “Mary ... dashed out through the rain so swiftly that only two of the fan-girls caught her.”

14. Tricked Out

Trick has been used as a verb meaning "dress," "adorn," or "decorate" since the 1500s, and it shows up at various times with up, off, or out.

15. Legit

Legit as a shortening of legitimate has been around since the 1890s. It started as theater slang for things associated with legitimate (as opposed to vaudeville or burlesque) theater. From the 1920s on, it was opposed to underworld or shady occupations or places. If you were “on the legit” you were being honest.

16. Fly

It’s been good to be fly since the early 19th century, when it meant sharp or knowledgable. By the late 1800s, it had taken on connotations of attractiveness and fashionableness as well. These citations from the OED illustrate how fly it was to be fly at the turn of the last century:

“I am speaking now of the young ... men about town who think it is awfully ‘fly’ to know tow-headed actresses, and that to sip crab-apple champagne with the gaudy, vulgar thing in pink tights is just the nobbiest thing on earth.” (1879)

“They get in with a lot o' cheap skates and chase around at nights and think they're the real thing ... They think they're fly, but they ain't.” (1896)

“Jim Blake lived in the country, and though a pretty fly boy among the rustics was not up in the ways of the outside world.” (1888)

[h/t to Simon Thomas at OxfordWords blog and this Metafilter thread for coming up with some of these words.]

A version of this article first ran in 2013.

'Turdsworth': Lord Byron’s Not-So-Affectionate Nickname for William Wordsworth

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

For those of you who thought William Wordsworth was a not-so-subtle pseudonym meant to further the literary brand of a certain 19th-century poet, think again: William Wordsworth’s real name was actually William Wordsworth.

The fitting, alliterative moniker makes it hard to forget that Wordsworth was a wordsmith, but it also made him an easy target for mockery at the hands of other Romantic era writers.

Some of it was the type of clever wordplay you might expect from England’s elite poets. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Michael Wood highlights the time that Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent his poem “The Nightingale” to Wordsworth, writing, “And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth/You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.”

While Coleridge’s witty rhyme poked fun at Wordsworth in a playful way, not all of his contemporaries were quite so kind. As Literary Hub points out, Lord Byron referred to Wordsworth as “Turdsworth.”

Byron’s jab sounds like something you’d hear at an elementary-school kickball game, but, then again, the eccentric poet was never one to adhere to anybody’s expectations—during college, for example, he often walked his pet bear around the grounds.

As for the word turd itself, it’s been around much longer than you might have realized. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it derives from the Old English word tord, meaning “piece of excrement,” and it’s been used as a personal insult ever since the 15th century.

If fecal-themed nicknames aren’t really your thing, here are 42 other Old English insults that you can fling with abandon.

[h/t Literary Hub]

14 Colonial-Era Slang Terms to Work Into Modern Conversation

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When you think of Colonial America, soldiers marching to fife and drum and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite are probably what come to mind. But the Colonial Period—which stretched from roughly 1607 to 1776, starting when America was just a group of colonies on the east side of the continent and ending with the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—was a fascinating but complicated time in which settlers from England forged a proud new identity. These new settlers brought the English language with them when they came, and whenever English finds a new home, it often takes on a new life. America was no exception. Here are 15 slang words that were recorded in and around this period of American history.

1. Kedge

What It Meant: Doing well

In you lived in a country town in Colonial-era New England and someone asked how you were doing, you might have replied, “I’m pretty kedge.” It’s a bizarre but wonderful term that essentially means in being in good health—but it also kind of sounds like something a teen in an ‘80s movie would say.

2. Cat's-paw, or to be made a cat's-paw out of

What It Meant: To be a dupe, to be used as a tool.

This colorful expression came from a fable, The Monkey and the Cat, where a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire, promising the cat its share. Spoiler alert: The cat doesn't get any. So to be used for someone else's gain is to be made a "cat's paw out of."

3. Chuffy

What It Meant: Surly or impolite

If someone is short with you, tell them they don’t have to be so chuffy. It’s a strange, old word with obscure origins, and one that sounds a bit softer than “jerk.”

4. Scranch

What It Meant: To crack something between your teeth

Though this apparently “vulgar” term sounds like it was named after what it sounds like to crack something with your teeth, it supposedly comes from the Dutch word, schransen.

5. Gut-foundered

What It Meant: Very Hungry

This word, which dates to 1647, is believed to be regional Newfoundland slang. Gut-foundered could easily become a new hyperbole for us pampered moderns to employ, like “starving.”

6. Fishy

What It Meant: Drunk

Possibly no one invented more ways to say “drunk” than colonial Americans. Benjamin Franklin alone compiled 200 ways to say it. Fishy was meant to also imply the way the drinker looked: “Bleary eyes and turned-down mouth corners make a drunk resemble a fish,” writes Richard M. Lederer, Jr. at American Heritage.

7. Macaroni

What It Meant: Fancy

When Yankee Doodle called that feather hat “macaroni,” he wasn’t being a weirdo. Macaroni was a term used at the time to refer to a particular men’s fashion from England that was intentionally flashy, over-the-top, and androgynous.

8. Twistical

What It Meant: Unfair or immoral

This word—which according to 1848’s Dictionary of Americanisms was primarily used in New England—feels like it could just as easily have been invented today. Slip it into conversation in the next time you experience something unjust.

9. Savvy, Savey, or Sabby

What It Meant: To know or understand

While we still use this word to mean something like “literate” (computer-savvy), in Colonial times, it was actually used more like the way Jack Sparrow uses it. So you might say, “I don’t want to come to work anymore, savvy that?” According to Merriam-Webster, it’s derived from sabe, which means “he knows” in Portuguese. This became sabi in Creole, and later, “savvy.”

10. Adam’s Ale

What It Meant: Water

If you’re feeling thirsty for water, try using this slang term that was popular on both sides of the pond in the Colonial era. To quote a 1792 American poem by Philip Freneau, “In reason’s scale his actions weigh’d / His spirits want no foreign aid / Long life is his, in vigour passes / A spring that never grew stale / Such virtue lies in Adam’s Ale.”

11. Shaver

What It Meant: A young or adolescent boy

To call a boy a shaver was to imply that they were young enough that they just started shaving. Which is fitting, if a little condescending—like they’re not embarrassed enough already!

12. Jollification

What It Meant: Celebration or merrymaking

It's hard to even say jollification without sounding like a reenactor at Colonial Williamsburg. And though jollification sounds like it would be a good thing, it seems like there was also such a thing as too much jollification: The August 10, 1772 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet used the word in a morality tale about a man named Hilario: "What jolification [sic] could be complete without Hilario? Cards succeeded cards every morning to invite him to dinner, to routs, to dances; his only excuse was prior engagement, and he had not resolution to withstand the temptations.” By the end of the tale, according to Children In Colonial America, "a life of cards, women, and wanton spending slowly whittled away his wealth ... no woman would marry him, and even his good looks had failed him."

13. Simon Pure

What It Meant: The real deal, authentic, untainted

A delightful phrase that rolls off the tongue and could be dropped into many modern sentences. And when someone asks you, “who the heck is Simon?” you tell them that Simon Pure was a Quaker character who has to prove he’s the real Simon Pure in a 1718 play by Susanna Centlivre called A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

14. Circumbendibus

What It Meant: Roundabout

Of all the ways to describe something unnecessarily roundabout— like someone telling a rambling story or taking a weird road when driving somewhere—this word, which dates to 1681, might be the most delightful. It also shows how much we fun we had and still have with language, combining prefixes and suffixes to make new words.

Joe Gillard is the author of The Little Book of Lost Words, and the founder of History Hustle.

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