Words that are older than you think, Part 1
Language changes, whether we like it or not, and nothing changes faster than slang. Most of us are all too familiar with that distressing moment when we discover that we’ve changed from despairing of our parents’ inept use of slang, to being lost at sea ourselves. Suddenly everything is ROFL this and YOLO that, and we’re nostalgic for the good old days of cool, wicked, and the subtle humour of adding ‘not’ to the end of sentences. (In case you’re not sure, those acronyms stand for ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ and ‘you only live once’. Now we’re all on the same page.)
But you can take comfort in the fact that some words used by today’s youth aren’t, in fact, recent additions to the English language at all. Here are five words you might have thought were products of the 21st century, which have actually been around for a fair while longer.
I spent some years wondering why my Dad ended his text messages to me suggesting he was ‘laughing out loud’, often when no joke appeared to have been made, until I realised that he was under the impression that LOL meant ‘lots of love’. It’s 1-0 to me here, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates LOL for ‘laughing out loud’ as far back as 1989, and doesn’t currently include it as an abbreviation for ‘lots of love’ – but both of us are beaten, chronologically, by a definition that dates back to 1960, where LOL is used as an initialism (but not an acronym) for ‘little old lady’.
Often developments in the English language are looked at askance by those who would class themselves as purists, and I’ve heard more than one person cry out in anguish at the idea of text as a verb. It’s become a part of everyday language for many people, describing the action of sending a text message on a mobile phone. But before your hackles rise, it’s worth knowing that text, as a verb, is the oldest of the five words in this article – dating to 1564. True, that sense made no mention of the mobile phone (unsurprisingly), meaning instead ‘to cite texts’, but another 16th-century sense describes a situation familiar to anybody who has tried to convey shouting in a text message, or accidentally hit caps lock on their keyboard: ‘to inscribe, write, or print in capital or large letters’.
As was recently explored on OxfordWords, the influence of Facebook on language is quite widespread. The verb unfriend, though it has gained widespread currency as the ultimate act of social severance in social media, dates back to 1659, according to current OED findings. It existed even earlier as a noun – as far back as 1275. The nominal sense has yet to have a 21st-century renaissance, but was briefly revived in the 19th century by the Scottish novelist Walter Scott.
If your love of Sherlock, Doctor Who, or, indeed, any cultural phenomenon crosses the borderline between admiration and fanaticism, then chances are you’ve been labelled a fanboy or fangirl. They are simple compounds from the words fan and boy or girl, but predate Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith by some decades – indeed, you could have been a fanboy back when Sherlock Holmes was originally still being published, since the OED currently dates fanboy’s first appearance in print to 1919 (the original Sherlock Holmes stories were published between 1887 and 1927). Fangirl wasn’t too far behind, in 1934. At the moment the OED doesn’t include verbal uses of these words, but the Oxford Corpus suggests these are growing in popularity. (For more on fanboys and fangirls, read our recent article on the language of geeks.)
The modern sense of hip-hop, a noun and adjective denoting a style of popular music of US black and Hispanic origin, is currently dated to 1981 in the OED, but it was preceded by over 300 years by an adverbial use meaning ‘with hopping movement’. At the moment, the second Duke of Buckingham is recorded as having written the earliest instance of hip-hop, in a play called The Rehearsal, which, to my mind, makes him something of a hip-hop icon.
There you have it. Language changes, but often slang draws upon words that were already in the English language, whether or not the speakers of slang knew it. So, next time you find yourself vexed that a fanboy is texting ‘LOL’, and you’re tempted to unfriend them, just remember – YOLO, perhaps, but many words in the English language get to live more than once.