Words that are older than you think, Part 3
In previous posts, we’ve revealed the surprisingly long histories of LOL, hip-hop, fanboy, unlike, flash mob, and more. With the recent discovery that twerk dates back as far as 1820, we’ve taken another look at words which are older than you think – even if the definitions are rather different in some cases.
Computer may seem like a 20th-century coinage, but the word goes back over 400 years. True, computer referring to the ‘electronic device (or system of devices) which is used to store, manipulate, and communicate information’ isn’t found until the 1940s, but computer as a machine for performing calculations dates to 1869, according to current OED research.
Go back to 1613, though, and computer is found without any reference to a machine: the word originally referred to ‘a person who makes calculations or computations’. Similarly, a calculator – referring to a person – dates as far back as the 14th century.
Can email really date to 1594? Well, it depends what you mean by ‘email’. The term for messages sent via the Internet (or a system for sending these messages) comes from the late 1970s; it is the obsolete email meaning ‘enamel’ that is found as far back as 1594, from the (still current) French word émail, ‘enamel’.
The word punk first entered the mainstream thanks to the punk rock music scene in the 1970s, and the term (referring to this sort of music and its concomitant subculture) is, indeed, first found in 1970. Punk had already had a long and varied history, though. It is first found in the 16th century, designating a prostitute. After this, it had various different sexual connotations, from a young man kept as a sexual partner by an older one to ‘a young male companion of a tramp’. Later still it was used of ‘a person of no account’, a coward, and an amateur, before being reclaimed and celebrated by rebellious 1970s music fans.
Crib dates back to Old English, which probably isn’t much of a surprise; its earliest sense is a ‘barred receptacle for fodder used in cowsheds’, and the earliest references are to Christ’s birth (where, contrary to the words of ‘Away in a Manger’, he did have a crib for a bed). The familiar sense referred to in that carol, of ‘a small rectangular bed for a child’, was in use by the mid-17th century.
More surprisingly, the informal use of crib, chiefly North American, to mean ‘a person’s apartment or house’ has a long heritage. Shakespeare himself used crib to mean ‘a small habitation’ or a confined space, in Henry IV, Part 2: ‘Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, / Upon uneasy pallets’.
You probably thought that J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word hobbit, and he is certainly the first to use the word to mean the species of imaginary people which feature in The Hobbit (1937) and, later, Lord of the Rings (1954-5). Earlier than that, though, hobbit (or hobbet) – albeit with an entirely different etymology – was used to mean ‘a seed-basket’ or a local measure meaning two of something; these uses date as far back as 1863, according to OED research.
Read Part 4 of this series.