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.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER