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 ...
"Swag" Was Made Famous by Charles Dickens in 1838
"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."
"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.
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."
"Scrub" Has Been an Insult Since the 16th Century
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.
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.
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, 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.
"Tweens" Were First Described by Tolkien
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.
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."
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.
Drunken People Are "Boozy," Thanks to Ben Franklin
Tipsy, sloshed, shitfaced ... they're all relatively recent terms that we've invented to categorize the many degrees of inebriation our self-destructing society is capable of achieving. You'd think that "boozy" would fall into pretty much the same category, or at the very least it would be one of the lesser-known smurfs.
"This smurf ... is the smurfiest smurf ... smurfs before smurfettes!"
"Be smurf, man."
But Actually ...
You know who else loved alcohol, like, a lot? Ben Franklin.
The word "booze" has been in use since the 14th century, but Franklin gets the honor of first publishing the word "boozy" in The Drinker's Dictionary in 1737. That's the book where he took time out of his busy schedule of creating the United States of America to come up with 225 synonyms for "drunk." Because of course he did. He's fucking Ben Franklin. The word appears alongside other colorful terms for drunkenness from the era of America's birth, such as "cherubimical," "crimp-footed," and "had a thump over the head with Samson's jawbone." Wow, 18th century slang was awesome.
He basically invented Urban Dictionary.
Along with "boozy," the other terms that he could have brought back into vogue include "He's been to France," "He stole a manchet out of the brewer's basket," and "He's eat a toad and a half for breakfast." All things considered, we think that "boozy" is probably the least entertaining slang term we could have taken away from Franklin's legacy.
A "Nerd" Was a Fictional Creation of Dr. Seuss
The term "nerd" seemingly arose from 1980s movies like Porky's, Weird Science, and Revenge of the Nerds, which created the popular dichotomy between popular jocks and those scrawny, four-eyed book learners who got around in suspenders and bow ties and whose heads were curiously just the right size to fit through the rim of a toilet bowl.
"Their love of toilets will be useful as janitors for my tech company in 10 years."
But Actually ...
The exact definition of the word "nerd" has always been a point of contention, but we can probably assume it has roots in '80s pop culture somewhere, right? Actually, try the '50s, and try children's author Dr. Seuss, whose book If I Ran the Zoo includes the first known appearance of the word. And it didn't refer to a mathematically inclined poindexter, but to an angry-looking imaginary creature:
"Wearing no pants is a choice I must do to prevent wedgies from Things 1 and 2."
Yes, the same guy who came up with animals such as the wumbus, the flunnel, and the floob-boober-bab-boober-bub is responsible for the nerd as well. The only difference is that nobody debates the definition of any of those other things.
How exactly this Seussian animal became the catch-all term for some bespectacled know-it-all is anyone's guess, but the word came into vogue right after Seuss' book was published, so popular opinion is that pop culture probably caught onto it as a neat four-letter word that was easily transformed into a ubiquitous insult. Still, doesn't that guy look like he's just aching to tell you all about how you're wrong about the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Or how your position on the debate between string theory and loop quantum gravity is all upside down? Shit, in an alternate universe where humans are Muppets, he could have been a character on the Big Bang Theory.
"Tricking Out" Your Stuff Dates Back to the 1800s
If you're going to "trick out" your car, it's only a less gangster way of saying that you're "pimping your ride" -- that is, adding a bunch of garish shit to make it stylish. It sounds like hip-hop slang from the '90s that filtered into the mainstream to the point that we're now talking about how to "trick out" our goddamned iPhones.
Which is sadly a step up from our goddamn genitals.
But Actually ...
Try 1823. And yes, it definitely followed the current meaning of ornamenting something excessively, specifically for the purpose of getting laid. The first man to use the term "trick out" was author, poet, advocate, and judge Sir Walter Scott. In his letters dated between 1821 and 1823, Scott apparently felt that he was lacking a certain panache, especially when it came to everything about him.
"I have so little that is fanciful or poetical about my own individu that I must trick out my dwelling with something fantastical otherwise the Coerulean Nymphs and swains will hold me nothing worth."
"And I tire of me having to hold me."
Now, we're not exactly experts on 19th century poets, so we're not totally sure, but we think this may be the first ever episode of MTV's Cribs. He's even referring to his "tricked out" house as the best way to impress his friends, although we're awfully glad that his term for "ladies" didn't catch on in modern slang. This is the earliest published example of someone "tricking out" his possessions in terms of adding bling to them, although "bling" isn't exactly the term that he used. Presumably, though, this letter was followed up with another entry declaring, "And then I'm going to pimp the shit out of mine buggy, verily."
So if there's one lesson that's become apparent here, it's that words move in and out of fashion in the English language, sometimes over the course of centuries. Of course, that also means that, somewhere in the distant but foreseeable future, teenagers might start using "fo' shizzle" again with a completely straight face.
But at least we'll all be dead by then.
And be sure to check out 33 Useful Words the English Language Needs to Add and expand your vocabulary.
Related Reading: While we're on the subject of ridiculous slang, have you heard the wondrous Australian term 'flat out like a lizard drunk'? And did you know the term tip used to mean paying a man not to beat you? Oh, and the term 'OMG' was invented by an elderly British admiral.