These 17 “Modern” Words Are Much Older Than You Thought
From "politically correct" to "smash hit," these terms have actually been in use for quite some time.
These words are brand-new additions to English…not!
Not unlike clothing, words fall in and out of fashion through the years. But you may not realize that some popular words that seem distinctly “modern” are, in fact, much older. Even seemingly “of-the-moment” terms like “politically correct,” “unfriend,” and “influencer” were common parlance before the early 21st century—in some cases, long, long before.
This dates back to a 1793 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Chisholm v. Georgia. Justice James Wilson wrote that the people, not the states, held the real power in the country: “To ‘The United States’ instead of to the ‘People of the United States’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct.”
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The term for a spoon/fork combo has been around since at least 1909 when it appeared as an entry in the Century Dictionary. The utensil itself has been in use since the mid-1800s.
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Popularized by satirist Stephen Colbert in 2005, it’s been listed in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1824 as an alternate form of “truthfulness.” When told that it was already a word, Colbert retorted, “You don’t look up ‘truthiness’ in a book, you look it up in your gut!”
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Loudly proclaiming, “Not!” at the end of an assertion to negate that assertion was popularized in the late 1980s in Saturday Night Live‘s “Wayne’s World” sketches. But the joke first gained popularity in the early 1900s by, among others, humourist Ellis Parker Butler, who wrote in Pig is Pigs (1905), “Cert’nly, me dear friend Flannery. Delighted! Not!”
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The entertainment trade magazine Variety began using this accolade to describe a successful movie in the 1920s. Here are more slang words from the 1920s worth bringing back.
This word for “empty talk” or “nonsense” originated in 1820 when Congressman Felix Walker, who was from Buncombe, North Carolina, talked at length about whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state. Politicians subsequently adopted the phrase “talking from Buncombe.” That was shortened to “bunkum” and finally to “bunk” by humourist George Ade, who wrote in his 1900 book More Fables, “History is more or less bunk.”
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Think “gossip” is, if certainly not an immediately recent word, a word that came to be in the last few centuries? Say, in the 1800s, in Jane Austen–like polite society? Think again. “Gossip” dates back to the Middle English word “gossib.” Although that word didn’t quite have the same meaning—it referred to a close friend or confidant—it was a direct predecessor to the one we use today.
If you think “barbecue” is a North American concept, bolstered by our love of burgers and hot dogs, you’d be incorrect. The word actually dates back to the mid-1600s and the Spanish word “barbacoa,” specifically the indigenous Arawak people of South America and the Caribbean. This word referred to a frame of sticks for cooking meat over a fire.
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No matter what definition you think of for this word—an adjective meaning “awesome,” shorthand for drugs, or a dismissive word for a not-so-intelligent individual—it’s probably pretty slang-y. You might think this word is a relatively recent invention. In fact, it dates back to the mid-1800s and comes from a Dutch word, “doop.” The word meant “sauce,” and led to the more “straightforward” definition of “dope,” a thick liquid or substance for preparing surfaces. Learn about some words that don’t mean what you think they do.
There’s certainly been a boom of influencers in the last couple of years, usually associated with Instagram. But the word itself isn’t all that modern a creation—according to multiple dictionary sites, the combination of “influence” and the suffix “-er” as a word dates back to the 1660s! Of course, back then, it wasn’t a job; it was used to more generally describe an influential person or circumstance (and still is today!). For instance, “Money was the biggest influencer on her decision to change careers.”
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This shorthand for “oh my God,” a favourite lingo choice of middle schoolers and texters of all ages, dates back about a hundred years! The Oxford English Dictionary recorded a use of it in 1917, in a letter from an admiral (a 76-year-old admiral, no less) to Winston Churchill. His use of the term and emphatic style, combined with the stately British language, seems downright anachronistic: “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis–O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)–Shower it on the Admiralty!!” (Yes, he explained what “O.M.G.” stood for.) We doubt all of these text abbreviations you should know have such distant origins.
Surprisingly and hilariously, this verb actually dates back to long before the advent of Facebook. Back before the days of social media—way back, in the 1600s—this word simply meant ending a friendship with someone. “I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us,” scholar Thomas Fuller wrote in 1659. Also hilariously, “unfriend” was actually used as a noun before people began using it as a verb! Sure enough, it meant “enemy,” in a rather cheeky shorthand for “the opposite of a friend.”
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People have been using this word before it was cool! (You knew that joke was coming.) In the late 1930s and ’40s, people used the word much in the same way they do today, according to Merriam-Webster—to describe someone tuned into and ahead of new trends.
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This might seem like a cute slang word that a little kid (or an elf) who was mixing up “giant/gigantic” and “enormous” might use. But it actually became popular as a slang term in the military! In 1948, it appeared in a dictionary of military slang, and it’s been found even earlier than that, in British newspapers dating back to 1942.
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Legit as a shortening of legitimate has been around since the 1890s. It started as theatre slang for things associated with legitimate drama (versus vaudeville or burlesque). From the 1920s on, it referred to authenticity. If you were “legit,” you were being honest.
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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 an 1886 issue of Longman’s Magazine, “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.
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OK, so this one’s an honourable mention. Yes, “Bluetooth,” the term for the networking technology that connects your devices, predictably came to be in the 20th century. But the origin of the term “Bluetooth” itself is comically old—the tech was named for a 10th-century Danish king, Harold Bluetooth, who helped unite warring Scandinavia.
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