For the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about words and phrases that are surprisingly old, and this week we have one final set of examples: computer, hipster, dude, and “No pain, no gain.” This was a bit of a trick question, because all four of these happen to be old.
The very first computers were actually people, as you may know from the book and movie “Hidden Figures.” These tell the story of the female African American mathematicians who worked for NASA calculating, or computing, the trajectories for spaceflights in the 1960s. These women are perhaps the most famous “computers,” but the word has been used in this sense since 1613. In the mid-19th century, it began to refer to a machine that could perform simple mathematical functions, a calculator, in essence. By the 1950s, these machines were evolving into the programmable computers we know today.
The first hipsters were musicians in Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s, who wore zoot suits (long jackets with padded shoulders and baggy trousers pegged at the ankle), played jazz, and had their own slang: jive. We know a lot about this language because Cab Calloway, the famous band leader, published the “Hepsters Dictionary” in 1938. He defined the
hepster or hep cat as “a guy who knows all the answers.” In the 1920s, hepsters were hip to the jive; in the 2010s, hipsters are hep to the artisanal coffee.
“No pain, no gain” is not just the mantra of muscle-bound people lifting weights at the gym. It is a venerable English proverb, first found in a collection of such sayings from 1577: “[T]hey must take pain that look for any gain.” It reflects the difficulty of this earthly life. In the 1980s, Jane Fonda seems to have popularized the proverb in relation to exercise when she encouraged people to “feel the burn” while following her aerobic workout videos.
It’s perhaps not as surprising that dude is old, since the American West is full of dude ranches that seem to link the word to cowboy life. Dude originally had more to do with Yankee Doodle than with ranching, though. A doodle was a fop in the 18th century, a man who took too much care over his ostentatious clothes, just as Yankee Doodle was a “dandy” who tried to pass himself off as one of the “macaroni,” a set of ultra-fashionable 1770s young men. Doodle eventually became dude, so a dude ranch is not where real cowboys gather, but where delicate city slickers can go to get a taste of ranch life. In the 1960s, dude was rehabilitated to mean a cool guy, a later version of the hepster, and now often simply means guy, with neither positive nor negative connotation.
This concludes our trilogy, at least until the next time I see a word and wonder, “Did people say that back then, too?”