7 Ridiculous Origins of Everyday Words
Between technology and pop culture slang, our language is changing at a terrifying rate. Remember when a hipster was an old-fashioned type of pants? Now it's a guy who wears them ironically.
That's why we find it so fascinating to go back and understand where the words we use actually come from; we've already told you about slang terms with racist, criminal and perverted histories. Yet somehow, those aren't even the weirdest word origins we've come across. For example ...
"OMG" Was Invented by a 70-Year-Old British Admiral
As you almost certainly know, "OMG" means "Oh my God, I am probably 12." It is most commonly associated with teenage girls who have, by now, probably forgotten that the word "ohemgee" ever stood for something other than simply "ohemgee" (if they were even aware of that in the first place).
"Fuck you. OMG LOL J/K ;) But no, seriously, fuck you."
Like "LOL," "WTF" and other similar abbreviations, "OMG" gained widespread use in the last years of the 20th century with the advent of instant messaging -- but it actually goes back much, much farther than that.
But It Came From ...
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first person to use "OMG" was a 75-year-old British admiral, which is about as far as a carbon-based life form can get from a teenage valley girl in a mall texting her friends about Justin Bieber's butt. His name was John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, and he coined the term while writing his memoirs ... in 1917. Almost 100 years ago.
Another chapter is just John Mayer lyrics written out in semaphore.
The exact phrase was: "I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapia -- O.M.G (Oh! My God!) -- Shower it on the Admiralty!" (his subtle way of hinting that he hoped to be knighted). It's ironic, then, that one of the most popular abbreviations in the world was created by someone who didn't quite grasp the concept of using the acronyms to save time, since he immediately followed the term with the phrase it was supposed to shorten.
However, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that someone in the navy would create something like this: In the days before VHF and single-sideband radio, ships' primary form of communication was Morse code -- a system that, like early texting, required each letter to be painfully spelled out. Navy men were used to abbreviations, and thus likely to come up with some of their own.
They also invented sexting.
And, since "Oh my God" is an entirely pointless statement, it also makes sense that it wouldn't really catch on among Fisher's peers. Valley girls, on the other hand, are all about pointless statements and uneconomical language (thanks, as we've already pointed out, to Frank Zappa), so this was a natural addition to their lexicon.
As for how they found out about it -- we'd like to think that there had to be at least one teenager in the eighties who was really into obscure documents from early 20th century British naval history.
Sadly, a bullying accident in 10th grade left him permanently swirlied.
"Crunk" Was Invented by Conan O'Brien
Depending on who you ask, "crunk" means "crazy and drunk" or "high and drunk" -- either way, it means you're too fucked up to spell "drunk" properly. It's also the name of a style of music, a combination of hip hop and electronic dance music specifically designed to confuse white people.
"Is this ... am I supposed to dance now? Do I eat it? Somebody please help me."
Crunk music jumped into the mainstream in 2003 with Lil' Jon's single "Get Low," but you'll never guess where it showed up before that.
But It Came From ...
In 1993, the word "crunk" was introduced to the world at large in pretty much the whitest place possible: Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
Also creator of the "masturbating bear" subgenre of death metal.
That's right, Conan was using the word a full decade before "Get Low" and four years before Three 6 Mafia's "Tear Da Club Up '97" (the first notable crunk single). Late Night writer Dino Stamatopoulos came up with "krunk" (as they spelled it) as a swear word that was supposedly so offensive, even the censors were baffled by it. Stamatopoulos says it was supposed to sound like a combination of offensive words without actually being one, allowing Conan and his guests to drop comments about things being "krunked up" and such -- it probably helped that one of those first guests was Ice-T, a man who could make any word sound like an insult.
We're not saying that Conan was definitely the first person in the world to use this particular combination of letters. Apparently back in the 1980s the word was in use in some Atlanta and Seattle nightclubs to mean "full of energy" or "hyped." But it was Conan using the word on national TV that would, just a few short years later, be followed by the mid-'90s emergence of crunk as a music style. So how about we split the difference and say that someone else invented the word, but that it was Conan who popularized it.
As for crunk's "creator" Dino Stamatopoulos: He would eventually gain some notoriety of his own by playing the character Star-Burns in Community.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice dignity for your craft.
"Boobies" Used to Refer to Underage Girls
"Boobs" is one of humanity's most perfect words. It's one of those words that immediately conjures a certain shape, perhaps because the letters themselves seem to resemble what they describe:
We're pretty sure you can spell the word "BOOBS" using actual boobs to form the letters.
It's weird to think that the word "boobs" could have ever been used to refer to anything other than breasts (shut up, birds don't count) ... which makes its origin somewhat disturbing.
But It Came From ...
According to some experts, "boob" evolved from the Latin word "puppa" -- meaning "little girl."
One more government watch list and we'll have BINGO!
In fact, "boobies" as a reference to mammaries didn't even appear until the 1930s -- it's earliest known printed use is in the novel Tropic of Cancer (1934), in which Henry Miller single-handedly preconfigured much of modern fiction by writing the sentence "She was lying on the ground with her boobies in her hands."
"Also she had breasts."
Before that, "booby" was primarily used as an insult meaning "stupid or childish person" (possibly derived from the Spanish word "bobo"), a usage that remains to this day among people who have apparently never heard of the other, better boobies.
So how did "boobies" go from something insulting to something awesome? The Online Etymology Dictionary claims that "bubby" under its "little girl" definition could have been used as child-talk for breasts, because children are too stupid to notice that only grown women have them. From there it was only a matter of time before this meaning eclipsed the other one, as slang terms concerning body parts tend to do (just ask anyone named Dick).
Especially if they also happen to be one.
"Nimrod" and "Maroon" Come from Bugs Bunny
"Nimrod" and "maroon" are the sort of words that you immediately recognize as insults, even though you have no idea what they mean. "Maroon" kinda sounds like "moron," while "nimrod" is most likely a penis reference of some sort. It can also mean "nerd." "Nimrod" may not be the harshest insult ever, but it's definitely one of the most degrading. In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega calls Tim Roth's character a "fuckin' nimrod," and you can literally feel everyone in the room lose all respect for the guy.
However, it turns out one of these words was actually a compliment ... and the other makes you a little bit racist every time you say it.
You can actually make quite a bit of money if you do it right.
But It Came From ...
For centuries, "nimrod" used to mean "great hunter": the term is based on the biblical figure of Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah and one of the most powerful kings ever. Some sources even link him to the Tower of Babel -- if someone had a shot at overthrowing God, it was this guy. Nimrod was also a mighty hunter, so much so that his name became a synonym with being good at killing things. So how did that change? Well, it was mainly because of these two:
In a 1940s cartoon, Bugs Bunny calls Elmer Fudd a "nimrod" as a condescending jab, kind of like calling your friend "Einstein" after he stabs himself in the butt or something. This wasn't the first time that "nimrod" was used ironically, but it was such an obscure reference that most people watching probably understood it as another word for "idiot," or someone with a severe speech impediment that turns "R"s into "W"s. "Nimrod" continued being used as an insult by Bugs and Daffy Duck in future cartoons, eventually losing the hunting connection altogether.
As for "maroon," that was just Bugs mispronouncing the word "moron" ... what's shocking there is what it used to mean before these cartoons popularized it as a silly insult. In the 1600s "maroon" was actually a word for fugitive black slaves who settled in the Caribbean and fought twice against the British for their independence. There are people in Jamaica who still identify themselves as Maroons and now have to explain "No, not that kind" all the time. Shame on you, Bugs Bunny, we never knew you were so racist.
Just kidding, we totally did.
"Shitfaced" Used to Mean "Young-Looking"
Dictionary.com succinctly defines "shitfaced" as "very drunk"; we think they might be missing a few superlatives. The idea, we guess, is that when you're drunk your face resembles poop? Or you somehow get poop on your face? We're not sure.
But even if you'd never heard the term before, you'd still assume, from the inclusion of the word "shit," that it can't mean anything good. Turns out that wasn't always the case.
We guess if she starts puking right after someone took a cr -- never mind. Not thinking about it anymore.
But It Came From ...
The word "shitfaced" as slang for "drunk" dates back to the 1960s, but that doesn't mean it didn't exist before that. In fact, it's present in a Scottish dictionary from 1826 -- which bizarrely defines it as "Having a very small face, as a child." In other words, back then anyone who had boyish looks was considered to be permanently shitfaced.
"Aren't you a little shitfaced to be shitfaced?"
There's an explanation for this: Scottish people have always had a predilection toward calling kids "little shits," and it looks like somewhere along the way they got confused about whether the "little" or the "shits" was the affectionate part. Keep in mind, however, that this particular use of "shit" was derived from "chit," which was just a "contemptuous designation for a child" and had no relation to excrement.
Sometime between the 19th century and 1948, "shitfaced" somehow came to mean "undesirable person." It's not difficult to see how it could have evolved from that to "annoying drunk" by the '60s, especially considering drunks' tendency to poop in unusual places. During that decade the word caught on especially among youngsters in colleges, meaning that most people getting shitfaced would have been considered shit-looking in old-timey Scotland as well.
Plus, it's Scottish law that all children begin drinking at age 4, so there's that.
"White Elephant" Comes From an Actual Elephant
A "white elephant" is a possession that you want to get rid of but can't, usually in the context of Christmas and a sweater from your aunt. But why do we call that an elephant? Maybe it's just us, but if someone gave us any type of large animal for Christmas we would be super impressed.
It's one of those terms that makes so little sense that you'd have to assume it comes from a story or a fable, like maybe somebody got a huge white porcelain elephant as a gift that was useless but impossible to give away and, we don't know, maybe it turned out it granted wishes or something. The point is, it clearly refers to something that, though forgotten, was no doubt cute and charming.
"Merry Christmas! You'll want to boil that for, like, ever."
But It Came From ...
There are two competing theories about where the term comes from, and one of them is pretty freaking disturbing.
First, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the term comes from actual white elephants that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) would gift to annoying people in order to screw them over. Since white elephants were sacred in Siam, they couldn't be regifted or put to work. But, they were still pretty expensive to maintain, meaning that the owners usually ended up being elephanted to ruin.
And that is the greatest prank we've ever heard.
But then there's the other theory: that the term comes from a specific elephant that belonged to P.T. Barnum, the famous businessman and circus owner. In the late 1800s, Barnum sent an agent to India to buy one of those legendary white elephants for his circus, for $100,000. When the first elephant was poisoned and died on its way to America, Barnum shelled out $200,000 for another one. And then, finally, Barnum got his white elephant ... and realized it was more like "grayish with white spots."
Also it was actually two guys in a suit.
Barnum's audience was as disappointed as he was. To make matters worse, his main competitor at that time simply took a regular elephant, painted it white and had a big hit.
Obviously Barnum wasn't willing to give away a $300,000 investment, and he probably couldn't sell it, either, so he decided to lock the elephant away in a barn in Bridgeport, the equivalent of hiding an ugly pair of socks in the back of your closet.
Sadly, the elephant died in a fire a few years later, but its legacy (supposedly) lives on in every unwanted present too valuable to throw in the garbage.
"And some say at night, when the moon is full, you can still hear him make that cartoon trumpet sound with his nose-holes."
"Robot" Was Another Word for "Slave"
We are no stranger to robots, and specifically to the fact that robots will eventually kill us all. Of course, the idea that robots are forced labor and will some day take retribution on their slavemasters is ridiculous. They're just tools, like your power drill or massaging office chair.
In fact, the word "robot" probably originally just meant "tool" or "machine" or something. Right?
Or "laser spider"?
But It Came From ...
"Servitude of forced labor." A fancy term for slaves.
The word "robot" is relatively new: It was invented in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel Capek, who wrote a play called Rossum's Universal Robots featuring artificial people built for the purpose of being slaves. He named these beings "robots" after the Czech word "robota," which means "forced labor." That's right: Even back then, we were giving these things a reason to revolt. This would be a good moment to note that the Czech Republic is right next to Austria ... birthplace of the Terminator.
Finally, a satisfying explanation for the accent.
Even though the robots in the play aren't mechanical at all (they're just made-up people with no souls), that doesn't stop them from fulfilling every other basic robot trope -- like taking over the world and killing all the humans in it. Also, the play ends with a male and female robot learning how to fall in love and wandering off into the sunset to repopulate the now humanless world.
They called it "Cybertron."
When the play was translated into other languages, the word "robot" caught on not just in English-speaking countries but pretty much everywhere in the world where they have stories about machines killing us all. It effectively displaced other, arguably less awesome terms for the same thing, like "android" and "automaton." On some level, we just had to keep reminding robots of their place. Eh, it probably won't come back to bite us.
J. F. Sargent blogs, tweets and is the managing editor of the political website PCulpa.com, which you can write for.
For more Cracked etymology, check out 8 Racist Words You Use Every Day and 6 Words That Need to Be Banned from the English Language.
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