9 Words You've Used Today With Bizarre Criminal Origins
We like to think there's something poetic and beautiful about the English language, as it was slowly pieced together over the centuries by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and James Joyce.
Look closer, however, and you'll see that English is actually just a mishmash of grunts and shrieks assembled haphazardly from the crude dialects of hobos, gypsies and rapists. For example:
"Tip" Used to Mean Paying a Man to Not Beat You
"I better tip that waitress so I don't feel bad about that thing with the vomit."
"I better tip this man so that he doesn't start wearing my face as a warning to others."
From the start, to tip meant to give somebody money, but four hundred years ago the money was given for a slightly different reason. It was part of the thieves' cant, a language used by the criminal underworld in Britain. You've probably used some of their secret code words today. The verb to "tout," which now means "praise something highly" started out meaning "to keep lookout and warn everybody if you saw the one time coming." They even gave us the idea to use "kid" to mean to joke with somebody (to them, it was treating somebody like a child).
"My buddy 'touted' the cops to me when he saw 'em coming. I was 'kidding' you as a distraction. I'm 'seriously' stealing your car."
The 1737 Thieving Slang Dictionary lists "tip" with the example sentence "tip your Lour or I'll mill ye," which means something along the lines of "Give me your money, or I'll kill you with this woolly-mammoth tusk" (OK, we're not sure what weapons they used). The word eventually acquired the meaning to give a gratuity, apparently after someone had the most terrifying waiter in the history of the service industry.
There's a reason waiters keep one hand hidden when handing you the check.
What we're trying to say is, 200 years from now, educated people will be using gangster rap slang in everyday conversation, and they will have absolutely no clue where it came from.
"My dearest ho, I believe my bling has slipped out of my pants. How pimp of me."
"Punk" Meant Whore, Criminal or Rape Slave
"I figure you're a punk because of your anti-establishment hairstyle and piercings."
"I figure you're a punk because I saw what White Power Mike did to you behind cell-block 5."
Punk's long history starts back in the 1600s, when it meant "female prostitute." In Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's less open-minded characters proclaims that "marrying a punk" is worse than being tortured and killed. By the turn of the 20th century, the meaning had changed to refer to the, uh, more unfortunate partner in the prison love arrangement. Until recently, punk as a verb was still widely used to refer to the act of prison rape, which forces us to see Ashton Kutcher in an entirely new light.
But not necessarily a surprising one.
But the word's out-of-prison use is mostly due to hobo slang, the dialect used by the vagabonds who once traveled the country, stealthily hitching rides on cargo trains. This dialect also gave us flophouse, handout and moniker, as well as the phrase "Man, maybe we shouldn't have locked the grizzly bear transport carriage from the outside."
The beard is for blending in with the bears. The leather gloves are for the wrasslin'.
In Hobo, punk meant a boy who worked as a criminal apprentice for a much older hobo, with or without the NAMBLA-ish implications. By the time the word crossed over into general usage, it had mostly lost these overtones altogether, and was instead a general insult for young criminals, rebels and anyone disliked by Clint Eastwood. In 1970, a music critic decided to use the word to describe a new type of rock music, and it went from there.
Viz., "this terrible band raped my ears and called my skull a whore."
"Flaky" Meant You Were Addicted to Coke
"Man, Bill left the lab monkey's cage open again and now there's Ebola everywhere. He's so flaky."
"Bill is so flaky. I can tell by the way he has more cocaine on his desk than Scarface."
In the 1950s, "flaky" made its way into baseball slang as an affectionate term meaning "eccentric." As in, "Oh, Doc just likes to do that with his bat sometimes. Don't worry about him, he's kind of flaky." But the word originated in criminal slang: flake was a word for cocaine, and flaky meant you were acting like you were addicted to it.
Rodney is so high, he's actually levitating seven feet above the ground.
Compared to the seedy underworlds of hobos and carnies, baseball jargon might seem positively mainstream. It makes up for it, though, by the wildly disproportionate amount of language it has given us for use as sex euphemisms: "Amanda thought she was going to score with her new boyfriend, but did not even make it to first base before she struck out, after which she accused him of playing for the other team. You know, swinging from the other side of the plate."
"Her next boyfriend threw her a curve ball when he hit a line drive straight into her forehead."
Hey, speaking of which ...
"Gay" Used to Mean a Heterosexual Who Has Lots of Sex
"Tom sure has been sleeping with a lot of men lately. I guess he must be gay."
"Jane sure has been sleeping with a lot of men lately, and she just bought that new diamond-studded car. I guess she must be gay."
You're a bitch, Jane.
Today, we often make fun of people in the past using the word "gay." After all, right up until recently it was a totally innocent word meaning "cheerful," right?
In fact, "gay" lost its innocence centuries ago. Starting in the 1700s, the word was used as a euphemism for pretty much anything sexual -- and in a surprising twist, it used to label anybody who was outrageously straight. In the late 1800s, "gay lady" meant prostitute, and "gay house" was a brothel. In fact, if you were a womanizer, you would have been called "gay." If that's not strange enough, a dictionary from 1811 listed "gaying instrument" as a slang term for "penis."
We're so sorry, band geeks.
The shift in meaning, which started around the beginning of the 20th century, started to take hold thanks to Polari, an underground dialect used in Britain among gay men and the theatrical scene back when most forms of homosexuality were still illegal. Polari also gave us the euphemistic terms flaming and camp (from an old French term meaning "to pose"). By the 1960s, "gay" was already established in some circles as meaning a man who prefers the company of men. So it turns out those old Batman comics really have no excuse after all.
We bet Gordon's instrument plays a happy tune.
"Jock" Meant "Penis"
"I had a dream in which I was surrounded by huge jocks. I think I am nervous about football tryouts tomorrow."
"I had a dream in which I was surrounded by huge jocks. I've never seen so much anthropomorphic foreskin. I think I need to speak to my therapist."
"Jock" started out as a common nickname for John, and was used in the past as a generic term for "man," the same way we say "John Doe" or "Jack of all trades" today. Around 1650, due to the apparently timeless human tendency toward naming male genitalia after people we admire, it became a slang term for "penis."
Calling this guy a dick is linguistically justified.
Hobos, who we're now convinced did nothing but travel around the country on trains thinking up new words for pederasty, even used jocker as a term for the older partner in the now-familiar unequal hobo love arrangement. Later, in the 1960s, people started using the word as a name for young athletes: this came from the shortened version of jockstrap, a fancy word for "penis-holster." Given the fact that "jockstrap" is still in common usage, it's pretty amazing that, since then, we've been able to get away with basically calling America's strongest teenagers "giant, walking cocks."
The day they gain sentience is the day we all lose.
"Raspberry" Meant "Fart"
"Your daughter just blew a raspberry at my son. How cute."
"Your daughter just blew a raspberry, are you sure microwave burritos are good for a two-year-old?"
Here's something you might have wondered: Why, when somebody blows through their lips to make that farting sound, do we call it a "raspberry"?
This is a deadly serious fruit.
For that, you can thank Cockney rhyming slang, a type of speech used by the London working class that's been around since the mid 19th century. As we have mentioned before, it's the reason for a lot of the nonsensical slang we use today, such as why some people call money "bread."
Unlike a lot of slang, there's actually a set of rules to it. First, you must be dressed as a chimneysweep. Then, you think up a word you want to say without others understanding you (for example, money). You then think up a phrase that rhymes with all or part of it ("bread and honey"). Finally, you shorten the phrase, so that outsiders can't guess what you mean when you say "bread."
"Give me all your bread or I'll barbecue grill you. And get me a sandwich, I missed lunch."
So, you might have heard somebody say "Put up your dukes!" when telling you to raise your fists to fight them. Back then "forks" was slang for fingers, they'd rhyme forks with "Duke of Yorks", and then just shorten it to "dukes."
We're playing our trap card, the Duke of Connaught. He has the eyes of a killer.
Which brings us to "raspberry." In its original form, it was "raspberry tart," which rhymes with "fart." Gradually, it became associated with the farting sound you can make with your tongue, because "tongue-flatulence" just doesn't have the same ring.
"Deep-Six" Meant to Toss a Rotting Corpse Into the Water
"My robo-warrior home business development plans were deep-sixed by my parole officer."
"Let's deep-six these buccaneer corpses off the side of the boat, in accordance with their pirate faith."
"Deep-six", like lots of words you use today, comes from old sailor and pirate lingo. You can also thank them for inventing terms like cooties (their word for body lice), Slush Fund ("slush" was the discarded fat from the ship's kitchen, which they sold for extra money) along with manhandle, ass and cockpit, which are the exact kind of things you'd expect a group of lonely men who spend months at sea without modern hygiene to come up with.
"Argh, I got so bored I set my hair on fire."
As for "deep-six", if someone drops dead on a ship in the middle of the ocean, you can't just bury them in the backyard like most of us do when an inconvenient corpse pops up. It's even worse when you're going to be at sea for a while: You know that the body will sit there, creeping everyone out with its dead eyes, perhaps getting stolen one day for a cruel prank involving a foggy night and some hidden rigging. So back in the day, sailors would simply throw the body overboard with as much solemnity as the occasion could manage.
"And so we commit this body to the sea, and see if we can skip him across the water. The record is five hops."
In this nautical slang, throwing a body overboard was known as deep-sixing. The "six" might have come from six fathoms, the minimum depth required to bury someone at sea. This was also known as the "if you can see it washing up on the shore, you're probably doing it wrong" rule.
"He had a message rolled up inside him. It says, 'send women.' "
"Geek" Meant Sideshow Freak
"Dave is looking at another website about photocopiers shaped like spaceships. What a geek."
"We found out that it was Dave who's been eating all those rats. What a geek."
Whenever you refer to yourself as a "computer geek," "movie geek" or "backyard missile-testing geek," you are in fact using carny lingo, a secretive dialect once used by the migrant workers who ran carnivals and circuses. Carnies used this language to isolate themselves from the outside world for when the weird peanut smell just wasn't enough. They'd also use it to test whether the aspiring job applicant or waitress they were talking to was a true fellow carny. If they responded with a glazed, frightened stare, chances are they weren't.
Just like normal people when cornered by a Starcraft geek.
Up until the 1950s, geek was carny talk for a sideshow freak who bit the heads off live animals. Back then, "geek rage" didn't mean what happens whenever a studio grittily reboots a film made in 2007. Instead, it consisted of toothily decapitating chickens, rats and snakes, which the geek would then sometimes eat alive. This, apparently, was what audiences had to make do with before pictures of people falling into holes became available on YouTube. The geek's line of work was so disgusting that even the other freaks shunned them.
She doesn't strike us as a picky eater.
By the mid-century, "geek" had escaped its carny restraints and become a term for a general misfit or outcast. These soon became the geeks we all know from 80s teen movies, who had advanced from eating animals to building computer-generated sex slaves. Today, those too young to remember the fact that phone handsets were once connected to things probably aren't even aware that the word was once a genuine insult. But geek is not the only word we can thank those wacky carnies for: they also gave us beatnik, ballyhoo, shill, scam, grifter and jerk.
"Discard" (and Lots of Other Words) Was a Gambling Term
"I discarded the audiobook when it did not, in fact, teach me to seduce any woman in 10 minutes."
"In order to win the game, I discarded some of the cards in my bad hand by pretending to yawn and then eating them."
This one seems kind of obvious once you hear it -- before it got its current, wider meaning, discard was a 16th century word meaning "get rid of a card while gambling." It does have the word "card" right in there. But considering that gambling is frowned upon as a hobby, a shocking amount of our language comes from the old underground gambling world.
Especially the foul.
Sure, there are the obvious slang terms like wild card, at stake, showdown and up the ante. But other, everyday words also came from the poker table -- for example they came up with the word luck. Likewise, hazard comes from a word meaning "play the dice." Bluff was invented by American poker players in the 19th century. Even the word "deal" was used in its poker context before it ever was used to mean "a business agreement." When people talk about stocks or young athletes they call the good ones "blue chip", aka the high-value blue discs used in poker (we can also thank these chips for "when the chips are down" or "let the chips fall where they may.")
Or "don't sweep up those chips, they're good eating."
So apparently if you put enough people together in a dark room and keep them there long after their families have abandoned them and the homemade liquor has erased all memories of the outside world, they're going to start making up new words. And the rest of us will start using them.
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For more lessons in linguistics from Cracked, check out 9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think and The 10 Coolest Foreign Words The English Language Needs .
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