6 Mind-Blowing Old-Timey Uses of 'Modern' Slang

The most intolerable members of our species are constantly coming up with new slang terms to describe concepts that we've known forever, like "friending" somebody who follows us on Facebook, even though we've had the concept of friends since time began. However, sometimes a term that sounds like it was made up by Ke$ha on the fly turns out to have a rich history in the English language much older than we ever knew. For example ...

#6. "Swag" Was Made Famous by Charles Dickens in 1838

Robert William Buss 

"Swag" is up there with "YOLO" on the list of things that future generations will relentlessly mock people from the 2000s for saying, which we absolutely deserve. Currently, there aren't a lot of things worse than "swag," which used to mean "stylish accoutrements and expensive taste" and now somehow means your knock-off Rolex and a sideways trucker hat. Still, it seems like people haven't been using this word to describe their bling for any longer than they've been using the term "Gangnam Style."

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
"Hey Macarena! (Ay!)"

But Actually ...

If you were paying attention in middle school, you might not have slept through this exchange from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist:

"Good," said the Jew; "there's no moon."
"No," rejoined Sikes.
"It's all arranged about bringing off the swag, is it?" asked the Jew.

If we can look past the disturbing fact that there's a character in the book named "the Jew" (this was the 19th century), this particular Jew is using the term in pretty much the same way that modern douchebags do, defined in old-timey style as "wearing apparel, linen, piece-goods, etc." That's right: People knew what it meant to have swag when they were reading it in 1838.

George Cruikshank
And Fagin's main man even had the cap and low-slung pants going on.

Although it shares the same root as "swagger" ("svagga," a Scandinavian word meaning "to sway"), "swag" was actually used first, and much earlier. As early as 1303, to be exact, in the time when English was still basically indistinguishable from German. At that time, "swag" meant a bulging bag, which kind of makes those boasts sound a little bit creepy. By the mid-19th century, "swag" had transformed from the bag itself to the stuff in it (which was usually looted or stolen because, let's be real here, this word comes from the Middle Ages and there was nothing else to do back then).

By 1838, you had what amounts to the modern definition ("acquired loot that makes you a badass"). Dickens stopped just short of following the exchange up with a high-five and "Yeah bro, #swag4lyfe."

#5. "Scrub" Has Been an Insult Since the 16th Century

Wikimedia

The word "scrub" has many definitions; depending on how white you are, you're probably thinking of either cleaning bathroom tiles or that Zach Braff sitcom about doctors. But in this case, we're actually referring to the term as used in the hit TLC song from the '90s, which described a scrub as "a guy who thinks he's fly" who's "hangin' out the side of his best friend's ride, trying to holler at me." Hell, if TLC didn't actually invent the term out of whole cloth, then at the very least it sounds like the kind of word that sprang out of the '90s and tried briefly to become cool.

TLCVevo
Pictured: Every female R&B music video from '97 to '99.

But Actually ...

It turns out that a scrub is a guy that can't get no love from 16th century English scholar and mathematician Robert Burton. He wasn't the one to invent the word (it comes from the Dutch "schrobber," meaning "a vile or mean fellow"), but he was famous for using it in his incredibly long-winded masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up.

While it definitely sounds like "The Anatomy of Melancholy" is a 2001 emo band with the hit single "Opened and Cut Up," that entire Faulkner-style sentence is actually the title of the 900-page book that Burton wrote in 1621. Presumably 700 of those pages were required for the subtitle alone.

Robert Burton
Cover 1 of 7.

In his book, Burton describes men whom he deems "scrubs and fools" as such:

"They cannot ride a horse, which every clown can do; salute and court a gentlewoman, [or] carve at table."

If you shove that sentence into Google Translate, hit "moderately less pretentious," and squint hard enough, you end up with most of the lyrics from "No Scrubs." In both cases, you have a guy who doesn't have his own ride, can't make it with the ladies, and generally fails at being a person.

#4. "Tweens" Were First Described by Tolkien

 Douglas Carrel

A tween is a kid who isn't quite a teenager but is still considered older than a child, so basically it's a marketing term that was invented by salespeople to create a new demographic to sell things to. The term seemed to spring up as a way of identifying the age of people who enjoy Twilight novels, so we never had any use for it until admen needed a way to distinguish young adults from people who were still eating paste on the regular.

Stretch Photography/Blend Images/Getty Image
You can never tell who is addicted to the white (dead) horse.

But Actually ...

The first time anyone was ever described as being in his tweens, it was in a little-known book called The Lord of the Rings, in which the protagonist, Frodo Baggins, is described as such:

"At that time Frodo was still in his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three."

New Line Cinema
An age characterized by a love of edgy dance moves.

That's right: The word that looks like it flew right out of some clothing store's marketing department was coined by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1940s. The word, which obviously riffs on the terms "teen" and "between" in order to refer to an early adolescent, was originally used to describe part of the life cycle of a humanoid with a much longer life span than a meager human, so a hobbit spends much longer in his "tweens" than a human, for whom the term refers predominantly to someone between the key marketing ages of 10 to 12.

Nevertheless, the term stuck, as we evidently need more-specific words to refer to young people, at least in the sense of hawking products such as Cosmo magazine to them.

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