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Fun With Words Old and New

Mar 23, 2012 | By Jack Bettridge

We place a lot of importance on the age of things. Age generally confers quality on old whiskeys and wines. However, when it comes to seafood and athletes, we usually prefer them fresher. Ever think about the words you’re using and how old they are?

All the ones I’ve used so far are centuries old and still going strong. My colleague Andrew (Drew) Nagy just brought to my attention an article from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly that presents a sampling of 15 words taken from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), together with their first known written use.

It’s an odd mix, notable to us because it includes the term tobacco, which it turns out is an old word indeed. The OED tracks it to 1585, when one William Harrison wrote the following:

In these daies the taking-in of the Indian herbe called Tabaco, by an instrument formed like a litle ladell, wherby it passeth from the mouth into the hed & stomach, is gretlie taken-vp and vsed in England.

Of course, Harrison’s spelling of tobacco (as with about a quarter of the other words he uses) differs from what we’d now consider Standard English. But the real linguistic origin of tabaco likely stretches back far longer. We (English speakers) got the term tabaco from the Spanish, who got it from the Taino Indians when Columbus visited Cuba, some 90 years earlier. How long the Taino (who also gave us another great word related to smoking: barbecue) had used it is anyone’s guess.

What makes some of the other 14 words on the list fascinating is their chronological relationship to tobacco’s emergence. For instance, the word anarchy (1539) predates tobacco. That is logical since one can imagine that a world where men knew nothing of tobacco must have been rife with the disorder and lawlessness implied by anarchy.

It wasn’t for another 13 years after tobacco’s origin that Shakespeare first wrote audaciously (1598) in Love’s Labour’s Lost. After all, how audacious could anyone have been without a smoke? Oddly, fun didn’t enter the language for quite a while (1699), while you’d think there would have been quite a bit of that once men got their tobacco.

What might explain it is that a word that isn’t on the list—cigar—wasn’t first used until 1730, according to another well thought of dictionary, Merriam-Webster. Hipster popped up in 1941, although it would be decades before our former colleague George Brightman would make that word synonymous with cigars.

The other words on the list:  Executive (1646), pandemonium (1667), egotism (1715) picnic (1748), cookie (1754), shopboy (1813), pop (1862, although it’s unclear what definition of the word this refers to as pop has been around in some form since 1591), chortle (1871), dicey (1950) and studmuffin (1986).

Used in context: The studmuffin audaciously chortled to the shopboy that some tobacco with some pop would be more fun on his picnic than a cookie. The young clerk, a bit of a hipster and given to dicey flights of egotism, replied, “What I’ll give you to smoke will cause anarchy and pandemonium.”

"Kudos for that last, pregnant, sentence. John D. Gubernat a cigar aficionado" —April 21, 2012 23:48 PM
"Having been an English major while in college, I truly enjoyed this column and would like to see more of the same. John D. Gubernat cigar aficionado" —April 21, 2012 23:45 PM
"Don't know if links are kosher, but I actually put together an anthology about early uses of tobacco in literature for grad school." —March 28, 2012 20:37 PM
"Studmuffin... I don't think I've heard that term used since 1986" —March 27, 2012 01:06 AM

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