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The word 'flash mob' is older than you might think.

Words that are older than you think, Part 2

Read Part 1 of the series. 

Every year words are invented or have surges of popularity – some stand the test of time, and remain in dictionaries of current English – and some quietly retreat into the pages of historical dictionaries. Perhaps it is encouraging, to anybody anxious about the seeming surge of new words which enter the world’s vocabulary every year, to know that some words are rather older than you might think. One can imagine them waiting, biding their time, until they are given a new sense or a new significance, and thus a new popularity. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the surprisingly old words LOL, unfriend, fanboy, hip-hop, and text (as a verb). Here are five more words that might be older than you think.


Unlike – with the fairly intuitive meaning of ‘withdraw one’s liking’ – was added to Oxford Dictionaries Online in the August 2013 update . Although its most common use now relates to web pages – most particularly Facebook – that wouldn’t have meant much to the first people who used the word. While we can now demonstrate our fickle emotions at the click of a button (“I liked my friend’s profile picture this morning, but I unliked it after lunch”), in 1761 the novelist Frances Sheridan wrote, in Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, “My heart is not in a disposition to love… I cannot compel it to like, and unlike, and like anew at pleasure.” That is the current earliest evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the sense of unlike meaning ‘to give up liking’ (the adjective, meaning ‘not like or resembling’, dates to the early 13th century). Perhaps Miss Sidney Bidulph would have found it easier to compel her heart had she set up a Facebook account.

Flash mob

Flash mob entered the OED in June 2013 with the definition ‘a large group of people organized by means of the Internet, or mobile phones or other wireless devices, who assemble in public to perform a prearranged action together and then quickly disperse.’ The earliest evidence for this definition is currently 2003 – so, not that old. But two entries for flash mob were actually added to the OED, and the other dates to 1832: ‘A group of thieves, confidence tricksters, or other petty criminals, esp. ones who assume respectable or fashionable dress or behaviour; such people considered as a class.’ So, if someone invites you to join in a flash mob, double-check what they mean – you’ll either end up going viral on Youtube, or spending the night in a police cell. Or, who knows, both.

Weapon of mass destruction

Most people, if asked to guess when the phrase weapon of mass destruction had entered the language, would probably plump for the early 21st century. That, of course, was the time when it was most frequently discussed, relating to the invasion of Iraq. However, the earliest instance of the word found by the OED predates that event by over three-quarters of a century – to 1937, when it is mentioned in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appeal at Christmas. The abbreviation WMD is also older than one might think; the OED currently dates it to 1991.


You might be surprised to learn that the filler tag question innit (in contexts such as “Chill out, innit”) isn’t an especially modern invention. The current earliest evidence for this use dates to 1973.  As a filler, innit (used in this way) is intended to add emphasis to a statement, rather than functioning in its older form – simply a contraction of isn’t it. Unsurprisingly, the simple contraction existed before the filler, and was being used as early as 1959 according to current research.


A hipster is someone who follows the latest trends and fashions, always ready to let you know that they liked things before they were cool. I like eating large amounts of cake while watching daytime television quiz shows, and goodness knows that’s not cool yet, so for all I know I might be a hipster. But, although the word has come to prominence in the past few years, people have been calling each other hipsters (often in a derogatory way) since at least 1941 – and hipsterism (‘the condition or fact of being a hipster’) followed by 1958.

Read Part 3 of the series. 

OED Timeline Hero Panel


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