These Culturally Relevant Slang Terms Are Older Than You Think

What’s old is legit new again.
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These Culturally Relevant Slang Terms Are Older Than You Think

Linguist Arnold Zwicky coined the term “recency illusion” in 2005 to describe that thing that happens where we often assume words are brand new because either we’d never heard of them before or they seem very “of the moment.” This is often especially the case with old slang terms that seem hot off the presses of some Vine star’s video from a couple years back. Slang is such a moving target that it often feels dated within two to three years, which makes it all the more shocking when we learn that our favorite hashtag has been around the block a few times (and can probably tell us campfire stories about its past lives in previous centuries).

But if fashion has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing — or very little — that’s new under the sun. Prepare to be surprised, because here are a few old slang terms that we treat like new ones.

Cool —Cool” has been cool since at least the 1800s, and this ever-versatile term has had many uses in the years since. Its use to mean “calmly audacious” was recorded in 1825, and by 1933 it meant “fashionable,” a usage that came from African American Vernacular English.

Crib — Shakespeare is credited with inventing a not-insignificant amount of English words, and though it’s unclear whether he was the first to ever use “crib” to refer to a dwelling place, he did have King Henry IV say something about “smoky cribs” in Henry IV.

Fly — He was pretty fly for an O. Henry guy. One of O. Henry’s characters in “The Moment of Victory” (circa 1900-1910) said “I’m trying to look fly” as he checked himself out in the mirror. Sadly for him, the woman observing him said “Well, you never could be fly.” A Tin Pan Alley song from 1902 backs this up with the lyrics: “She met a gay young city chap, who tho’t that he was fly.”

Hipster — The original hipsters (you know, before it was cool) were the jazz aficionados of the late 1930s and 1940s. Though Merriam-Webster cites the earliest known usage as 1938 (used to refer to “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion),” it also was used as early as the late 1920s to refer to someone with a hip flask.

Legit — People have legit been abbreviating “legitimate” as “legit” since the late 1800s. The oldest recorded instance of this was in 1897 and was used to refer to “legitimate drama with literary merit.” Shakespeare was so legit, brah. None of that vaudeville claptrap.

OMG — Think this is the intellectual property of the dot-com era? Think again. “OMG” is at least as old as 1917, which is when British admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher wrote the following in a letter to Winston Churchill: “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis–O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)–Shower it on the Admiralty!!”

Scrub — TLC’s music might rightfully count as oldies or nostalgia jams, but “scrub” has been in usage since at least the 1580s, and its meaning wasn’t that different back then: a “mean, insignificant fellow.” In the 1700s, however, it was used to refer to someone who was a “hard-working servant” or “drudge,” which was probably the contemporary equivalent of “loser” — but with a very different work ethic than the scrubs getting on the last nerve of Lisa Left Eye Lopes.

Snowflake — Way before modern-day liberals were ever accused of being too politically correct, those who opposed the abolition of slavery in 1860s Missouri were actually the original snowflakes. It was a reference to the white skin they prized and valued so much, so the meaning has clearly shifted a little.

Swag — It’s a testament to the swagger of “swag” that it’s endured in our lexicon so long that the spelling of “hansom” changed to “handsome” in its lifetime. In a 1640 play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, there were “hansom swag fellowes and fitt for fowle play.”

Woke — Believe it or not, we’ve been woke to the term “woke” since way before Twitter. A 1962 New York Times article by William Melvin Kelley included “woke” in a glossary of contemporary African-American slang and defined it as “well-informed, up-to-date.”

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