8 words that are younger than you think
Having teased you several times with words that are older than you think, we thought we’d turn the tables and look at some that have a surprisingly brief history. Of course, older information may turn up to provide antedatings – but, as things stand, these words have entered the English language later than you might have thought.
Since this article was published, we have found earlier evidence for some of the words explored below. You can find out more about Oxford Dictionaries’ ongoing research programme here.
Frogs have been making noises as long as they’ve existed, of course, but the word to describe the sound – ribbit – didn’t come along until the 1960s, according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting it existed earlier in oral use (though even this only takes the word further back in the 20th century), but no written evidence has yet been found.
You might have spotted our OED Appeal for mullet. Despite being popular as a hairstyle before 1994, that’s the earliest we’ve been able to find – in a song by the Beastie Boys, no less. Though we’re still on the lookout for earlier evidence (which has been a complex journey already), at the moment it seems that this word is several years younger than the hairstyle it denotes.
Whether you’re looking for a meat substitute for a vegetarian burger or simply like your mushrooms supersized, the portobello mushroom is an excellent choice. Until fairly recently, though, it was simply a large crimini mushroom; portobello used in this sense has not been found before 1990. It is perhaps an alteration of the Italian pratarolo ‘meadow mushroom’.
Since this article was published, we have antedated the first use of portobello by five years to 1985.
Though famous cases of serial killers can be identified through the centuries, with plenty before the 20th century, the term serial killer (‘a person who commits a series of murders, often with no apparent motive’) surprisingly only dates back to the 1970s.
As part of the OED’s ongoing research, we have recently found a 1967 example of serial killer in the Washington Evening Star.
Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne in England and Ireland between 1558 and 1603, but Elizabethan wasn’t used at the time. Indeed, approximately two centuries had passed after Elizabeth’s death before Elizabethan was used as either a noun (for people of the period) or an adjective (‘belonging to the period’).
Although the entry for Elizabethan is not yet revised, we have found new evidence from 1731 – antedating our current first use by 76 years!
The worst-case scenario is, we know, something that we should endeavour to prepare for – and people have been doing that for centuries. It doesn’t seem that they were calling it that, though, until at least the 1960s. That is the earliest that worst-case has currently been found, referring to ‘a worst-case analysis technique’.
Since this article was written, we have found evidence of worst-case from the 1950s, referring to ‘”worst-case” studies’.
You might think that meritocracy would date back to the dawning of democracies – meaning, as it does, ‘government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit, as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.’ – but, while the concept doubtless predates 1956, that is the earliest that the term has been found in use.
When was the first acronym? Though there is technically a distinction between acronyms and initialisms, the OED notes that acronym is often used for both. The concept has been around for centuries (there’s even a famous example from early Christian traditions, INRI) but the word has yet to be found before 1940. Initialism is a little older, appearing in the late 19th century, but these handy shortenings were being used long before people had a name for them.
Were these words younger than you thought?