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.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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