Ten ‘Modern’ Words with Older Literary Connections

If you think ‘totes’, ‘fangirl’, and ‘trick out’ are recent idioms, then we’re here to surprise you. In a previous post on Twitter terms and literature we uncovered some of the ancient literary origins of words more commonly associated these days with the world of social networking. Now, in this new list, we consider 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.’

keyboard3. 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.’ But 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 programme The Only Way is Essex, about the lives of a group of young people from the English county near London. This show has popularised the word ‘reem’ as an adjective meaning ‘cool’ or ‘good’, but the word existed with an earlier meaning long before the programme. 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.’ For more on this, see this site.

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? Continue your language odyssey with these 27 great word facts and these interesting stories behind modern words.

Image: ‘Computer Keyboard’, Wikipedia, public domain.


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  11. Excellent post… thanks for sharing, Aquileana :)

  12. I cannot reblog but I will share this article everywhere I exist online.

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  14. Most interesting. It’s good to know some of those dreadfully annoying words,once had a more pleasant meaning. Fantastic post. Thank you.

  15. Very interesting…
    Great Blog, thanks for the research and the share.
    Thanks also, for following my Blog.
    Have a great weekend.

  16. Good old Aphra Behn getting right down the nitty gritty, there’s no mistaking her meanings when reading her poetry, unless of course you really try! Fantastic post, I love the idea of people Unfriending each other for hundreds of years! This is why I love the English language!

  17. Pingback: Ten ‘Modern’ Words with Older Literary Connections | Tasha's Blog.

  18. Good read! You should post it on

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  20. Reblogged this on How my heart speaks and commented:

  21. Fantastic post and instantly reblogged :)

  22. Great post! I have a section on my blog dedicated to interesting articles about the English Language, and just added a link to this article for other readers to check out.

  23. I used to live not too far from Bristol Rovers’ former ground at Eastville. The terraces behind one of the goals was called Tote End, after the totaliser clocks used when the stadium was turned over to greyhound racing — though I didn’t know this at the time, some four decades ago. TOTE END was commonly graffitied on walls in the area which, in my innocence, I assumed was a colloquial misspelling of ‘to the end’. So for me ‘tote(s)’ had a completely different resonance until recently. (Apart from its ‘shouldering a burden’ meaning of course.)

  24. This is fascinating,,I enjoyed it

  25. Reblogged this on Ty and commented:
    I absolutely love Etymology and this post is fantastic

  26. Great post! I will be sure to share these with my students – especially ‘totes’ – as I hear it all the time!

  27. I can think of one. Tweenies. Today used for kids between childhood and teenagehood. During the first World War, Canadian author Sara Jeannette Duncan was writing plays. Unpublished. But in her manuscripts she uses the word “tweenie” for a maid, apparently between upstairs and downstairs.

  28. Allow me to note that in Dutch the word email is simply “mail” and the verb accordingly “mailen” as there was no such word in use before its current meaning; there was though and still is the word email meaning emaille, glazing, like in French. You made me think that maybe the choice of the word “mail” for “email” has something to do with this. Very interesting article!

  29. This is fascinating. I was expecting a lot of the Shakespeare slang that you see on a lot of lists, but this is new to me. Great post!

  30. The best are email, google and bang. Had a laugh with this last one.

  31. Thanks for finding my blog ~ happy to find yours. I’ve be looking forward to all things literature – from now on!

  32. Sometime in the very near future I will fit the phrase ‘I must trick out my dwelling with something fantastical’ into conversation. It’s happening.

  33. Thank-you for visiting my blog and remarking that you liked my post – Could I write a scene that would be remembered.
    I’m finding your blog interesting too.

  34. I really enjoy this kind of stuff, and most of all, am surprised that ‘Simples’ was not a native word in Meekat Land. You live and truly learn

  35. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    My favorite is the literary connection to “unfriend.” Interesting stuff!