5 Words That Never Existed Till Oddly Recently
As December draws to a close, it’s time for the world’s dictionaries to name their Words of the Year. For 2023, Merriam-Webster went with “authentic.” Collins chose “A.I.” Cambridge and Dictionary.com both picked “hallucinate,” which is another A.I. reference. Oxford chose “rizz.” The idea is usually to pick some word that soared in usage. Or in Oxford’s case, it’s to enrage people against the youth (in previous years, Oxford picked “goblin mode,” “vape” and the laugh-crying emoji).
Most words you use, of course, never spiked in popularity like these superstars. Most words feel like they must have been around forever. But all words are made-up, and some of them were made-up pretty recently. Sometimes, we created the word long after we created the thing it describes.
Every language has words to describe boys and girls. We have certain reasons today for separating children by sex (usually, it’s for choreographing renditions of “Summer Nights” from Grease), and gender roles used to be even more rigidly defined if we go back 700 years or so. And yet, the word we have now for a male child, “boy,” isn’t that old. It only came about in the 16th century.
Before that, for a few centuries, you know what we called male children? We called them girls. We also called female children girls. “Girl” was a unisex word. We were still able to distinguish between kids of one variety or another, but we had no single word to do it. Instead, they called male children “knave girls,” while they called female children “gay girls.” We encourage you to go use those phrases for all boys and girls you see today, making many of them very angry (and some of them not angry at all).
Speaking of words for dudes, and words that can be unisex, let’s talk about “guy.” This word has described men for a couple centuries, which is about as long as you’d suspect. Its history is a little more complicated than that, though. For starters, the word was a name for around a thousand years longer than it was a common noun. Then came the big guy, Guy Fawkes. In 1605, he utterly failed to plow up Parliament in an attempt to install a theocracy, and afterward, people burned effigies of him. They called these scarecrow-looking mannequins “guys,” after Guy.
By the 18th century, people started referring to actual men as guys. Only, they didn’t use this word for men in general. They used it as an insult, since it likened the subject to a pile of clothes to be burned for everyone’s entertainment. Then the word started referring to working-class men, since people didn’t think very highly of them. But since other people are just fine with working-class men, the word lost its stigma and it soon referred to all men. It now refers to people of all genders, though that final shift wasn’t so much a gradual expansion of its meaning as an assumption that any word for men can also represent all humankind.
People were having fun with tobacco perhaps as far back as 7,000 years ago. As for what word they used to describe what they were doing by lighting the stuff on fire and breathing it in, well, that doesn’t matter since none of those people spoke English. Zip forward to the 17th century, when English speakers got their taste of tobacco, and they didn’t say they participated in the act of “smoking.” They said they would “drink smoke.”
We were just joking before about not caring what other languages say — as a matter of fact, “drinking smoke” is the preferred expression in many languages, even today. Though the smoke goes into your lungs instead of your stomach, “drinking” is a pretty good description of the act. You’re taking the smoke in, much like you take in beverages, and possibly while you’re taking in beverages.
You know what’s a less sensible name for the action? “Smoking.” We say a fire is smoking up the place when it creates smoke, so it’s pretty weird that we say the same thing when we (or ham) take in smoke. If anything, when we say we smoke, that should refer exclusively to exhaling. Still, by the end of the 18th century, English speakers switched to calling the whole process smoking, particularly the inhaling portion. We call it smoking, rather than drinking smoke, for the most honorable of reasons — brevity.
The word “genocide” was invented by one man: Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. He got out of Poland during World War II and made his way to the U.S., where he wrote a book that called genocide “this new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development.” The book was published in 1944. By 1948, the U.N. wrote up a treaty criminalizing genocide by name.
You might say that if any one time in history makes sense for when genocide got its name, it’s got to be in 1944 or so. However, the world had gone through a fair number of genocides before the Holocaust. And even the Holocaust had been going on for several years by 1944, and the world knew it, but they didn’t have a word to describe what was happening.
1944 is recent enough that you’ll have no trouble finding a ton of writing from before then. Plus, there’s writing that’s set before then. This year’s Killers of the Flower Moon takes place in the 1920s, and at a tribal council, conducted in English, one character says, “We’ve also got to realize this evil that’s come here. You have something it wants. It didn’t want you when we was coming through genocides, our coming home. But now...”
Some people would find this scene moving. But dedicated etymologists simply shake their heads and scowl. “That word didn’t exist back then,” they say, and they leave the theater in anger.
During Charles Darwin’s voyage in the HMS Beagle, on a quest to eat every animal he could find, the captain of the ship was Admiral Robert FitzRoy. When he wasn’t kidnapping native children (for the purposes of civilizing them), FitzRoy was known for trying to predict the weather, using data he obtained about the wind and waves. He called these predictions “forecasts.” Once back home, he received a new title from the Royal Society: Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade. He founded what would go on to be called the Meteorological Office.
On some level, people had been trying to predict the weather for thousands of years. Originally, people had no idea how to predict temperature and rain, and their early efforts looked at longer-term stuff like river levels. Later, the field became entwined with astrology. Predictions were, predictably, therefore not very good. Other tools, such as putting frogs in jars and listening for their croaks, were equally unreliable.
By coining the term “forecast,” FitzRoy made the idea sound magical, which wasn’t particularly conducive to convincing skeptical scientists. When the Meteorological Office was starting out, many distrusted it. “In a few years,” said one MP while debating funding the office, “notwithstanding the variable climate of this country, we might know in this metropolis the condition of the weather 24 hours beforehand.” Everyone else in the room started laughing.
Well, who’s laughing now, 19th-century members of Parliament? It’s the meteorologists, that’s who. Firstly, because one-day forecasts are now extremely accurate (you just think they’re not because you remember the ones that aren’t). Secondly, because weathermen are primarily hired on the basis of how jolly they are.