back to top

11 Slang Terms You Think Are New But Are In Fact Ancient

Did you know they had hipsters in 1941?

Posted on

1. "Hipster". New slang, right? You associate it with twentysomethings with skinny jeans and beards.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

But the first recorded use of the word was in 1941. Hipsters have been trying too hard to look cool for more than seven decades. And they really haven't changed that much: Norman Mailer was writing about "the self-protective irony of the hipster" in 1958.

That’s because of a thing in linguistics called the “recency illusion”.

This is the impression that words you've recently heard are brand-spanking-new to the language, when in fact they're surprisingly old. (The term itself is, ironically, relatively recent: it was coined in 2005 by a linguist called Arnold Zwicky.)

It means we tend to think some new slang has just dropped from some teenager's mouth a few minutes ago. Usually, though, what we think of as some gleaming modern coinage is years, decades, or sometimes centuries old.

2. "Swag". It means something like "cool".

Nickelodeon / Via giphy.com

The precise meaning confuses some people; Gawker spent an entire article explaining what it means, while the New Yorker defines it as "an all-purpose expression of agreement or endorsement". But they both agree it's a very recent phenomenon.

Except that it was used, with a very similar meaning, in The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in 1640: "Hansom swag fellowes and fitt for fowle play".

3. "Dude". By now it will not surprise you to learn that it goes further back than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) / Via giphy.com

Quite a lot older. It's even older than Keanu Reeves and that other one who for some reason never really did anything after Bogus Journey. The first recorded use of "dude", according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was in 1882. It's an abbreviation of "Yankee doodle", and implied an over-fastidious, too-well-dressed young man – as in all the well-heeled US easterners who go on vacation on "dude ranches" in the west.

4. "Bae" isn't quite that old. But nor did it spring fully formed from the internet's forehead last year.

Disney / Via giphy.com

The New Yorker has its first use in the early 1990s as "bae bae", a mutant of "baby". It was shortened to just the one "bae" in the first years of this millennium. So it's either 10-ish or 20-ish years old, depending on how strict you're being. As the New Yorker points out, quite a lot of people using the word will be younger than it.

6. "Onesie".

Miley Cyrus / Via youtube.com

Again, the word is older than most of the people wearing the thing it refers to. "Onesies" was a trademark of the clothing manufacturer Gerber, registered in September 1984. The original Onesies were all-in-one clothes for babies; quite who had the brilliant idea of scaling them up by 700% is not clear (although Winston Churchill once wore something similar, so it was probably a while ago). But the word is more than 30 years old.

7. "Literally" to mean "not literally".

Oxford Dictionaries of English / oxforddictionaries.com / Via blogs.telegraph.co.uk

Oh, it makes people so very angry, to the point that they complain that non-literal "literally" users have "literally killed the English language". But if they have, then it's been dead for a long time: Dickens wrote "His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone" in Nicholas Nickleby, 1839. There is a similar usage in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, 1868.

Since the words "really" and "very" have gone a similar route from indicating the truth or reality of something to simply emphasising a statement, it's a bit weird how upset everyone gets about "literally".

8. "Snark" can't have existed before the internet, can it?

Ninth of Henry Holiday's original ilustrations to "The Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll / Via en.wikipedia.org

Well, sort of. There was Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, of course, but that doesn't seem to have anything to do with its modern meaning of "caustic, opinionated, and critical rhetoric". "Snark" itself was apparently coined in 2002, but it was based on "snarky", which, meaning "to find fault with, nag" – close enough – goes back to 1886.

9. "Cool"? As in "hip", "rad", and other words that haven't aged as well as "cool"? That'll be from the '60s, right?

Getty Images/iStockphoto vojkan-photography

Nope. First recorded meaning "fashionable" in 1933; "term of general approval" from the late 1940s, from bop and jazz culture.

10. "OMG". Not invented in California.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno / Via giphy.com

First recorded, bizarrely, in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill from Lord Fisher, a former First Sea Lord. "I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis – O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)," he wrote, rather ruining the point of abbreviating something by writing it out in full next to it.

11. "High", as in under the influence of drugs.

Paramount Pictures / Via giphy.com

David Shariatmadari, writing in The Guardian, points out that this isn't the Beat Generation coinage you might expect. Referring to illegal narcotics, it goes back to at least 1932, and was used way back in 1627 to mean "drunk". ("He's high with wine".)

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!

Dismiss