16 January 2024

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

By Ronald Smith

Ever wonder where the modern words we use today actually come from? I do. But, hey, call me a ‘word-nerd’—that’s how I learn all sorts of cool stuff. Turns out, many of the words we throw around in the twenty-first century actually have some pretty surprising origins.

Here’s the deal: words in any language don’t stay the same. They change and grow over time, sometimes shedding their original meanings and taking on new ones. Sometimes, they even jump from one language to another. And when you start digging into their roots, you’ll find yourself pretty darn surprised.

Here’s a list of words that come from unexpected places or people.

Nerd

If you meet someone who loves technology or books, you might call them a nerd. But did you know that the word “nerd” was actually invented by Dr. Seuss in his book “If I Ran the Zoo” back in 1950? Dr. Seuss, known for his creative words, was the first to use this term!

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

Honestly, I think Dr. Seuss was a true lover of words. He proved this by writing an entire book using only 50 words, just to take on a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about prom. We all know it as that special event where high school girls wear colorful dresses and boys squeeze into uncomfortable tuxedos for awkward photos they’ll either cherish or regret forever.

But did you know that the word “prom” actually comes from “promenade”? It originally referred to the formal walking and showing off of guests at banquets that American universities held in the 19th century to honor each year’s graduating class.

Moving on to something else…

But can you believe that back in 1973, the great J.R.R. Tolkien used the term “hip” in his world-famous book The Lord of the Rings to describe a Hobbit in his tweens? Pretty interesting, right?

Yahoo

We all know that Yahoo used to be the coolest search engine and email service provider a few decades ago (until Gmail took over). And I’m sure most of us have read Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels when we were kids. But what’s the connection?

The word “Yahoo” actually comes from that famous novel, where it referred to a race of brutes. It’s funny to think about it now, considering how basic and outdated Yahoo seems compared to other search engines. Don’t you agree?

Denim is the ultimate fabric that everyone wears and is always in style. It’s a word that comes from “serge de Nimes,” which means “the fabric of Nimes” in French. Nimes is the city in France where denim was first made back in the 17th century. As time went on, “de Nimes” got shortened to just “Denim.”

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

So, next time you put on your denim jacket to look cool, just remember that you’re actually wearing a fabric that has been around for centuries.

Brochure

If you work in the field of graphic design and printing, you probably know what a brochure is and how frustrating it can be when clients keep asking for revisions. But did you know that the word “brochure” has a long and fascinating history?

Back in the 14th century, a Latin love poem called “Pamphilus” became incredibly popular in Europe. It was copied many times and passed from person to person. Eventually, this poem gave us the word “brochure.”

Virtual World

The term “cyberspace” originally referred to a “space of inter-connected network of computers.” Eventually, the actual cyber community adopted the term, and it became part of their slang.

Now, let’s talk about “fanzine.” This word is a combination of “fan” and “magazine.” It was actually invented in 1940 by a die-hard fan of science fiction named Russ Chauvenet. Funny enough, today’s Facebook fan pages can be seen as a modern version of online fanzines, don’t you agree?

Lastly, let’s discuss the atomic bomb.

Here’s another case where the world of science fiction influenced the scientific community. It’s called the Atomic bomb. This idea was first conceived by HG Wells, often referred to as the father of science fiction. In his novel The World Set Free published in 1914, he imagined a hand grenade made of uranium that would keep on exploding without end.

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

In the novel, Wells’ ideas left a strong impression on me. It was fascinating to learn about Leo Szilard, a physicist who actually patented the concept of a nuclear reactor, which ultimately led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

The Strange Word – “Weird”

Let’s talk about the word “weird.” Initially, it was used as a noun, but over time, its meaning has changed. In Old English, “weird” meant “destiny” or “fate.” However, as time went on, it took on a different connotation – someone who has control over their own fate, someone who is considered “unnatural.”

And that’s how we ended up with its modern meaning – someone who is considered “strange” or, in other words, weird. Isn’t it fascinating how the word “weird” itself became weird?

The Incredible Spaceship

When you think of a spaceship, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the Star Wars trilogy or something similar. But the word “spaceship” actually has its origins in J. J. Astor’s 1894 novel, A Journey in Other Worlds. This novel tells a futuristic story about a spacecraft that carries humans on an exploration of outer space.

Now let’s talk about robots. Every other day, it seems like there’s a new advanced robot being designed and programmed to perform different tasks to help humanity. But the word “robot” itself has a rather grim history. It was first coined in a 1920 play and comes from the Slavic word “robota,” which means “a forced laborer.”

So, even though spaceships and robots may seem like modern-day inventions, their names and origins actually go way back in time. It’s fascinating to think about how language evolves and how words can take on new meanings and associations over the years. Who would have thought that a word like “robot” would come to signify advanced technological creations that assist us in our daily lives? It just goes to show how imagination and innovation can shape our world.

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

The peasants who were bound in compulsory service under the feudal system in 19th-century Europe were called “robota.” It’s quite ironic that the word “robot” perfectly captures the concept of manufactured artificial workers. Can you believe it?

Nowadays, Twitter has become synonymous with the popular micro-blogging platform. But did you know that the word was first mentioned by the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer way back in the 14th century? He referred to Twitter as “continuous chirping” or tweeting. It’s amazing how some people still use Twitter that way today…

And let’s not forget about freelance. It’s a term we often hear these days, but where did it come from? The concept of working independently and not being tied down to one employer actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. Back then, a “freelance” was a knight who didn’t serve any particular lord and was free to offer his services to anyone who could pay. It’s fascinating how language evolves over time, isn’t it?

So, the next time you get hired to do freelance work, feel proud to consider yourself a modern-day soldier in arms. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

Swagger

And finally, we come to the word that’s all the rage these days – Swagger. You might be surprised to learn that it was actually William Shakespeare who first used this term in his play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He described it as “carrying oneself with pride and an insolent manner.” Nowadays, you’ll mostly hear it in rap music, where it’s become the coolest word around.

16 Cool Words and Their Surprising Origins

When Cher sings “swagger jagger” in that super lively video, it’s pretty easy to understand what she means.

A few closing remarks

Now you have enough knowledge to impress your friends with your smarts. But don’t think that only linguists or English teachers can actually use all of this. You’d be mistaken.

In my opinion, if you’re a logical thinker, no matter who you are, understanding the origin of a word can help you make sense of it, and that can ultimately improve your learning overall.

Leave a comment below if you know any words with unexpected origins!