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Which word is older?


Arnold Zwicky, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, several years ago coined a term for the mistaken belief that a word is newer than it actually is – the recency illusion. This is an easy trap to fall into – many people feel that if a word is new to them that it must be new to the rest of the world as well.

Have a look at these five pairs of words and see if you can guess in each instance which of the two entered the English language first.

1)      Aliterate and irregardless

2)      Escalator and escalation

3)      Refrigerator and deep freeze

4)      Fartlek and cross-training

5)      Computer and bean counter


1)      It may come as some small comfort to people who hate the word irregardless that people have probably hated it for more than a century. According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, the word entered our language in the middle of the nineteenth century. Aliterate is considerably newer (the first recorded use is in the 1960s), and should not be confused with illiterate, which has been in use since the middle of the sixteenth century.

2)      Escalator has been used to describe the moving staircase since the beginning of the twentieth century – it came into English as a trade name. Escalation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into use in the late 1930s.

3)      Although it is tempting to assume that prior to the modern use of electricity there was no such thing as the refrigerator, they have existed for a considerable length of time. The word for the device that is used to keep food items cool dates to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Deep freeze, like escalator, first came to English as a trade name (in 1941), and by the late 1950s had also come to be used as a verb.

4)      Even though fartlek has the look and feel of a good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon coinage, it is the more recent addition of the two (it comes from the Swedish words for ‘speed’ and ‘play’). Cross-training dates to the beginning of the twentieth century, although people had doubtless been cross-training their fartleks for many years prior.

5)      Computer has been in use for hundreds of years. It came into English about 400 years ago to describe a person who makes calculations, and in the 1860s began being used to describe a machine that performed such a task. The more recent sense of computer (as an electronic device) dates from 1945. Bean counter didn’t enter the language until the 1970s.