10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

15 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms

luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The '80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your favorite scrunchie, and let’s motor!

1. Bodacious

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word here.

2. Hella

According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”

3. Gnarly

It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

4. Duh

This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, 'cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.'"

5. Tubular

Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”

6. Eat My Shorts

That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.

7. Gag Me With A Spoon

This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).

8. Radical

This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).

9. Take a Chill Pill

When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early '80s.

10. Wastoid

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”

11. Ralph

Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”

12. Bod

Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: How are you feeling?

13. Grody

Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,' which means disgusting beyond belief.”

14. Motor

A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”

15. Veg

To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”

The One Letter in the Alphabet That Can't Be Silent

Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images
Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images

The English language can be baffling at times—just look to words like phlegm, receipt, and chthonic for proof. Silent letters are unavoidable. Almost every word in the alphabet is occasionally guilty of taking up space without contributing anything, but there is one exception. According to Merriam-Webster, V is the only letter in English that consistently makes itself heard.

No matter where it appears, whether it's in love, voice, or divisive, V plays a vital role. Most letters are phonetic chameleons: That's why the C sounds different in cat and city, and why the g sounds like nothing at all in gnash. V is unique in that it never goes through an identity crisis.

There are a few letters that rival V's special status. Z is only silent in words we borrowed from the French, like chez, laissez-faire, and rendezvous. The one silent J in the entire English language appears in marijuana, a term of Spanish origin. But even accounting for words we've adopted from other tongues, there's not one example of a silent V in the English dictionary.

The prevalence of silent letters is just one frustrating aspect of our language. Here are a few more obstacles foreign speakers must encounter when learning English.

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