Verbal Energy

Wow! Some words are, like, really old!

Even words bearing the stamp of one particular era often go back surprisingly deep into earlier times.

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I have an etymological nugget I've been saving, like a special chocolate bar, until the occasion is right. Here it is: The interjection Wow, as "a natural expression of amazement," goes back to the 1510s. Yes, you read that right – early in the 16th century.

Wow! That is pretty amazing, isn't it? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wow was originally "a Scottish interjection." The verb sense ("We really wowed 'em") was first recorded in 1924, a mere four centuries later. The noun sense ("His last show was a real wow") stems likewise from the 1920s. The Dictionary of American Slang notes, "This old interjection had a new popularity in the early 1900s and again during the 1960s and later."

Speaking of Scotland (warning – the connection I'm about to make is a very loose-knit one): I recall once upon a time seeing my father in an argyle sweater vest I didn't recognize. It was shortly after the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow film "The Great Gatsby" had come out, with some notable effect on that season's fashions. And so when I saw the sweater, it crossed my mind, however briefly, that I was perhaps seeing Mr. Redford's influence on the attire of my very own, not exactly fashion-­forward father. And so I had to ask: "Hmm, Dad, when did you get that sweater?"

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Pause.

"Oh, probably about 1935."

It turned out that after some weight loss, he'd found himself able to get back into threads he'd acquired as a very young man – items that he'd frugally kept in storage over many of the intervening years.

The point I'm backing into here is that there may be no more connection between the amazed Scots of the 16th century and the flappers of the 1920s than there was between Redford and my father's argyle vest.

But what prompts me to wow you with this amazingly deep back story on wow is a letter from a reader concerned about the propriety of using disrespect as a verb. Yes, it's defined in slang dictionaries as meaning "to put someone down," but it's almost as old as wow: It goes back to 1614 and was a verb before it was a noun.

Respect and disrespect reflect the idea of "looking back at" someone. Picture, for instance, a manager who says something provocative in a meeting and then looks back at a valued senior colleague to judge his or her reaction.

Some words – notably slang – bear the stamp of a particular era. I might have guessed the 1920s as the point of origin for "wow." They were an exuberant, slangy time. But even words of one particular time often go back surprisingly deep into earlier times. The suburbs, for instance, is a term indelibly stamped in my mind with the mark of the second half of the 20th century. But the King James Version of the Bible (first published in 1611) includes 69 references to "suburbs," most of them in the Old Testament.

There is also a fair bit of "traffic" in the Bible (half a dozen references, albeit spelled with a "k"). There are no shopping malls in the KJV, but there is a passage in Matthew's Gospel that suggests a turn-of-the-era equivalent of the teenage mall rat: "[T]his generation ... is like unto children sitting in the markets and calling their fellows...."

As we read elsewhere in the Good Book, there is nothing new under the sun.

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