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.

Can You Pick the Body Parts Described by the Adjectives?

The History Behind 7 New York City Street Names

deberarr/istock via getty images
deberarr/istock via getty images

Modern life means constantly rushing to get places, especially in New York. Whether it’s the daily grind to get to work or the rush to hit happy hour, residents are probably concentrating more on getting somewhere than carefully considering the details of their surroundings.

But next time you're in New York—or if you're a resident already—try looking up from your phone to take a peek at the street names above you. Along with your more common numbered designations and things like "Park Avenue," you’ll notice the city has some pretty strange denominations. Here are seven of the more eye-catching, and the brief history behind their names.

1. Asser Levy Place

Tucked between the generically named 23rd and 25th streets, Asser Levy Place stands out like a sore thumb. Located not far from Stuyvesant Town, this unassuming street bears the name for a pretty prominent historical figure.

Said to have been born in what is now Poland and Lithuania, Asser Levy was one of the first Jewish settlers to land in the predominantly Dutch New Amsterdam. The governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was “violently opposed” to the freshly emigrated Jewish community, unhappy at the fact that they were now allowed to trade and reside within the area [PDF]. Levy was not only the first kosher butcher in the land but also the first Jew to gain rights of citizenship in the country. Additionally, Levy donated funds to help New York fight the British Crown, and eventually took up arms against the British himself.

2. Maiden Lane

The history behind Maiden Lane’s designation is just as picturesque as it sounds. Known to Dutch settlers as Maagde Paatje (or “maiden path”), this portion of land once ran alongside a brook where women and girls would wash clothing. There are darker associations with the area too, though: Maiden Lane also saw a brutal slave revolt in 1712.

Today the street is one of many centers of commerce for the city, although the concrete still holds remnants of the city’s more ornate past. Passersby can take a look at the Barthman Clock, a 19th-century timepiece embedded into the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway.

3. Mott Street

Located primarily in the heart of Chinatown, Mott Street’s modern associations aren’t the most flattering. Once the site of multiple crime scenes and illegal activities, the street has garnered a somewhat seedy reputation over time.

But before it became affiliated with the seedy underbelly, Mott Street had patriotic associations. Joseph Mott, the street’s namesake, owned a tavern used as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775. His descendants proved dedicated to equally worthy causes, with Dr. Valentine Mott rising to prominence as one of America’s most influential surgeons.

4. Pearl Street

Before the concrete jungle fully took over, the streets of New York were dominated by oysters. Due to their bountiful number, the shells of shucked clams would pile up into what archaeologists call middens—large piles of domestic waste that have survived the centuries. One particularly large heap was located on the modern-day Pearl Street, giving rise to the mollusk-related moniker. Oddly, however, these oysters were not the pearl-producing kind—although they dominated a good portion of the New York market for quite some time.

5. Minetta Lane

Speaking of water-related items, did you know a once-babbling creek was paved over by one of the city’s more famous streets? That’s right: Known to the Dutch as Mintje Kill or “small stream,” Minetta Brook was “[a] brisk little brook full of trout,” according to one 19th century source, that was covered by the city’s expansion around the 1820s. It was also where a community of “half free” African Americans resided in the 17th century—former enslaved people that were allowed to live on the land by paying annual fees.

6. MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street is known for its vibrant nightlife and for hosting the early days of Bob Dylan’s career. But it also holds claim to a not-so-well-known spelling error.

The street was named for one Alexander Mcdougall, a Scotsman who emigrated to what would become the United States as a child in 1740 and settled in New York. Mcdougall made a name for himself in the mercantile trade and shipping business and was an early defender of American independence. He openly voiced his opinions against British rule, and was even imprisoned for passing out revolutionary pamphlets. His colorful life saw him commissioned as a colonel in the First New York Infantry during the Revolutionary War, become a member of the Continental Congress, and rise as the first president of the Bank of New York. However, how or why the second L in his name was dropped in the naming of the street remains a mystery.

7. Margaret Corbin Drive

Located at the city’s far northern tip, Margaret Corbin Drive is named for a young Pennsylvanian woman whose tough life molded her into a tougher lady. Her childhood saw the death of her father by Native Americans and her mother’s capture soon after; years later, the British killed her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret, who was standing by his side at the time, quickly took his place in the conflict by handling his cannon—receiving several bullets as a result.

The U.S. government recognized her bravery by providing her disability compensation (as well as rum and whiskey rations) for many years. Although sometimes remembered as a “haughty and disagreeable eccentric,” the affectionately called “Captain Molly” is forever memorialized by the street running along the site where her brave acts took place.

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