Surprisingly old words that seem contemporary

Fake news was not coined by President Donald Trump, though he suggested something of the sort in a 2017 interview.


Last week I posed a question about words and phrases that are surprisingly old. Which of these were first used before 1950, and which after? The contestants were “See you later, alligator,” “No pain, no gain,” fake news, computer, blog, hipster, swag, dude, flash mob, and nerd.

Let’s start with the new ones. Nerd is right on the boundary, having appeared in teenage slang in the early 1950s. The teens evidently took it from Dr. Seuss: A nerd is an imaginary creature in his 1950 “If I Ran the Zoo.” As soon as young people began to use it, adults began to deplore it, with a 1951 Newsweek article complaining that “someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” Drip is just a more decorous insult, I guess.

I always thought “See you later, alligator” was quite an old phrase, because my grandparents, born in the 1910s, would say goodbye that way. Instead it turns out to be evidence that as adults they were hip to some contemporary music. This phrase, as well as the response, “after a while, crocodile,” was popularized by a Top 10 hit song in 1956.

And it would be cool if the word blog predated the internet, but it does not. It first appeared in 1999. 

Now for the oldies. Fake news was not coined by President Donald Trump, though he suggested something of the sort in a 2017 interview. It’s unclear whether he claimed that he invented the word fake, or that he was the first to link it to the media, but either way that’s ... fake news. The term actually dates from the late 19th century, when it was used by newspapers and magazines to boast about their own journalistic standards and attack those of their rivals. In 1895, for example, Electricity: A Popular Electrical Journal bragged that “we never copy fake news,” while in 1896 a writer at one San Jose, California, paper excoriated the publisher of another: “It is his habit to indulge in fake news. ... [H]e will make up news when he fails to find it.” 

Today a flash mob is a group of people who suddenly assemble in public and perform a choreographed routine, perhaps a dance or freezing in place. Swag is free stuff, from travel-sized shampoo bottles to expensive handbags, depending on whether you’ve gone to the opening of a new store at the mall or the Oscars. Both these terms originated in thieves’ cant, the venerable secret slang used by cheats and villains. In the 19th century, a flash mob was a group of confidence men and women who dressed up in respectable clothing the better to swindle their victims; swag referred to stolen goods. Free stuff, indeed.

Next week I will cover the remaining words and phrases: computer, hipster, dude, and “No pain, no gain.” Are they young or old? Make your guesses!

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