Some words are older than you might think

It’s common to hear “What’s up?” as a greeting today, but you may be surprised that Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian detective character, said it too.

Karen Norris/Staff

“‘What’s up, then?’ asked Holmes, with a twinkle in his eye.” When my husband came across this line in an 1892 Arthur Conan Doyle story, he couldn’t quite believe it. 

It’s not surprising to hear “What’s up?” or “Sup?” as an informal greeting today, but this is Holmes as in Sherlock, the great Victorian detective. “What’s up?” seems too contemporary. 

The phrase actually has an old pedigree. It is found as far back as 1845, and has been used to ask “What’s going on?” in texts ranging from “Huckleberry Finn” to the Parliamentary Papers of Britain, 1889 edition.

There are many words and phrases that are surprisingly old. The field of technology has produced quite a few, such as when a new technology replaces an old but retains the name. Aircraft, for example, dates from 1845, more than 50 years before the Wright brothers took their first flight. At that time, though, the word referred not to airplanes but to hot air balloons. The first hot air balloon flight took place in 1783; in 1784 English got the parachute, meant to slow your descent in the air if your giant silk bulb sprang a leak. (A 1784 newspaper reported on its development: “After having thrown a sheep six times from the top of a tower, ... by the aid of a machine called a parachute, without the animal receiving any damage, [the inventor] prevailed upon a man ... to try the experiment.”)

Some problems that we think of as contemporary actually resulted from the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Acid rain was known to make buildings crumble and to destroy vegetation as early as the mid-19th century, long before it became an environmental flashpoint in the 1980s. Geologists in the 1860s speculated about how the greenhouse effect had increased Earth’s temperature, though it was scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896 who first linked it to rising CO2 levels from burning coal, and estimated that it might eventually raise the Earth’s temperature by 8 degrees Celsius. (He was not worried; he lived in Sweden and thought this would be just fine.) 

The word earthling sounds like it comes from 1950s science fiction, but it was first used to describe “a being from earth” in 1593. At first, earthlings were the opposite of heavenly creatures such as angels, but by 1858 it was us versus aliens from other planets. 

Which of these words and phrases do you think were first used before 1950: “See you later, alligator,” “No pain, no gain,” fake news, flash mob, computer, blog, hipster, swag, dude, and nerd? The answers will appear next week. 

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