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Ten 'Modern' Words With Literary Origins

11/14/2013 05:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

If you think 'totes', 'fangirl', and 'trick out' are recent idioms, then I'm here to surprise you. Elsewhere I have written about some of the literary origins of words more commonly associated these days with the world of social networking. But now I've turned my attention to ten words which have grown in popularity in recent years, but which have literary origins or histories stretching back many decades, and in some cases many centuries. Unless stated otherwise, all citations are to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

1. Totes

The word 'tote' meaning 'the total amount' is first found in print in a volume of essays from 1772: 'That this was the whole tote of his case is notoriously known.' Meanwhile, 'totes' is recorded from 1887 in the sense of 'total abstainer' in E. J. Mather's book Nor'ard of Dogger: 'The fishermen are all 'totes' (as in total abstainers from alcohol). This is the forerunner to the modern word 'totes,' slang for 'totally,' used as an adverb rather than a noun, as in the infamous recent phrase, 'totes amazeballs.'

2. Simples

Known in Britain thanks largely to a meerkat-led marketing campaign, this word -- used often as a colloquial variant of the more usual adjective 'simple' -- is found in James Joyce's modernist classic Ulysses (1922): 'The first fellow that picked an herb to cure himself had a bit of pluck. Simples.'

3. Unfriend.

The word 'unfriend' as a noun dates from around 1275, meaning 'one who is not a friend.' It is found in Layamon's medieval epic poem 'Brut,' which also provides us with the first recorded use of our next word (more of which anon). Meanwhile, 'unfriend' as a verb is attested from 1659 in a work by a T. Fuller: 'I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually un-friended by this difference which hath happened betwixt us.' Fuller got there nearly 350 years before Facebook.

4. Muggle.

Also from Layamon's epic poem Brut (which tells the story of the founding of Britain), 'muggle' appears in the mid-1270s with a slightly different meaning from the one originated by J. K. Rowling for her Harry Potter series. In Layamon's work, a 'muggle' was 'a tail resembling that of a fish' rather than 'someone born without magical abilities.'

5. Trick out.

As slang for 'adorn' or 'decorate,' the verb phrase 'trick out' was first used by Sir Walter Scott in a letter of February 1822: 'I must trick out my dwelling with something fantastical.'

6. Email.

Thomas Nashe's 1594 work The Terrors of the Night includes the word 'email' -- used as an alternative word for enamel, derived from the French. The modern sense of 'email' as in an electronic communication is, of course, much more recent (1979), but it's interesting to learn that the word had been used nearly 400 years earlier, to denote a different thing altogether.

7. Google.

This word is most famous as the name for the search engine founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin (originally under the name BackRub). They wrote: 'We chose our systems name, Google, because it is a common spelling of googol, or 10100 and fits well with our goal of building very large-scale search engines.' (Googol, the word for this very large number, had been invented by the nine-year-old nephew of a mathematician back in 1940.) But the word 'Google' with this spelling is much older than the search engine. It appears in a 1953 letter written by Raymond Chandler to his agent: 'The sudden brightness swung me round and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn't enough.'

Enid Blyton's 1941 novel The Magic Faraway Tree refers to a 'Google Bun' while another book by Blyton, Circus Days Again (1942), features a clown called Google. Meanwhile 'google' as a cricketing term (as in 'googly') is found in 1907 in the Badminton Magazine. But don't take our word for all this: you can always Google it.

8. Reem.

This will be familiar to some British readers because of the ITV2 program The Only Way Is Essex. This show has popularized the word 'reem' as an adjective meaning 'cool' or 'good,' but the word existed with an earlier meaning long before the program. The word 'reem' is first found in English in 1607, in reference to an ox-like animal mentioned in ancient Hebrew literature.

9. Bang.

The word 'bang' appears to have been used as slang for sexual intercourse as early as 1677 in Aphra Behn's play The Rover: 'We'll both lie with her, and then let me alone to bang her.'

10. Fangirl.

The word 'fangirl' is first recorded in 1934, in a novel by humorist A. P. Herbert called Holy Deadlock. 'Fanboy' is found as early as 1919...

So there we have it! Are there any we've missed off the list?

An earlier version of this blog post originally appeared on the blog site Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness.