The Interesting Literary Origins of ‘Selfie’, ‘Unfriended’, ‘Twerk’, and Other Modern Words

The true origins of some modern additions to the Oxford English Dictionary and other ‘new’ words

This post is a sort of sequel to our earlier post, about 10 seemingly modern words which actually have older, literary connections. In that post, we cast an eye over words such as ’email’ (actually found in print in the sixteenth century – with a different meaning, obviously!), ‘Google’ (found in 1907), ‘muggle’ (the thirteenth century), and others. Now, we’re looking at other modern words that aren’t so modern – even if they once had very different meanings from the ones we now associate with them.

Selfie. Although this word is a recent phenomenon and was the Oxford English Dictionary‘s Word of the Year in 2013, its origins lie in the nineteenth century. (Of course, it had a different meaning then: it would have been difficult to snap a quick selfie with a camera obscura, though doubtless there were early attempts.) The term is recorded in art critic John Ruskin’s letters, where he uses it as a pet form of ‘self’. In a letter of November 1888, for instance, Ruskin wrote to Joan Severn, his cousin: ‘My Doanie – I have nothing to say but what I have said – of my selfie – I am your poor Donie’.

Unfriended. The word ‘unfriended’ is best-known today in the context of social networking, specifically Facebook. But Shakespeare uses it in several of his plays, including King Lear (‘Will you, wish those infirmities she owes, / Unfriended, new-adopted to our hate, / Dower’d with our curse, and stranger’d with our oath, / Take her, or leave her?’) and Twelfth Night (‘Unguided and unfriended’).

Twerk. Albeit with a slightly different spelling, the word ‘twirk’ was sixteenth-century slang meaning ‘to twist the hairs of a moustache’. But with the modern spelling, it was used in 1990 in a book on ‘learning capitalist culture’, in John Ruskinthe phrase ‘twerking-the-teacher’. We trust that meant something slightly different from the Miley Cyrus-tinged meaning it’s since acquired.

Bodacious. Now more usually associated with the 1990s and used to describe somebody whose body is sexually attractive, this word started life in the nineteenth century and was first recorded in 1845, with the meaning of ‘complete, thorough’.

Frape. Although it has recently been used to refer to the act of taking over somebody’s Facebook page and posting something in their name, the word ‘frape’ started out as a Middle English word in the fourteenth century meaning ‘mob’ or ‘rabble’.

Storify. Better known as the name of a website that allows users to create a long thread or narrative of Twitter conversations and other social media events, the word ‘storify’ – meaning ‘to convert into a story’ – was first recorded back in 1616, in John Lane’s continuation of Chaucer’s ‘Squire’s Tale’.

Computer. Although sometimes attributed to Sir Thomas Browne who used it in the 1640s, this word has actually been traced back earlier, to a 1613 book Yong Mans Gleamings. It was used to mean ‘a person who makes calculations or computations’.

Android. The word ‘android’ dates back to 1728: it was featured in Ephraim Chambers’ dictionary of scientific terms, the Cyclopaedia. There it had much the same meaning as it has today: an automaton resembling a man. Although, of course, it is the name of a mobile operating system now as well.

Legit. The word ‘legit’, as a slangy short form of ‘legitimate’, is first found in print in 1897, where it was used in reference to legitimate drama.

Advertisement. The first recorded use of the word ‘advertisement’ with something approaching its modern meaning is from Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, in around 1600. Okay, when we say ‘modern meaning’ we should clarify that the Bard wasn’t referring to billboard posters or television commercials, but he does use the word to refer to ‘the calling of general attention to something’ or ‘public notification’, of which the more recent meaning is an offshoot.

If you enjoyed this, check our our collection of interesting word facts.

Image: Self-portrait by John Ruskin, 1875; Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Pingback: 10 Interesting Facts about Modern Words | Interesting Literature

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Three of my friends and I get together at least once a month for a “word luncheon” at which we all introduce two or three new words that we’ve come across in our reading or travels that month. It’s a fun event that we all look forward to, and I’ll be checking out this blog for some interesting words and their origins.

  3. Wonderful post! I shall use some of these words with renewed vigour now!

  4. A fascinating post! I love looking at word meanings and how they change. Language is constantly evolving. :)

  5. Excellent reminder that nothing is genuinely new.

  6. The OED is rife with meanings that have undergone amelioration or pejoration throughout the centuries. When I was teaching, I used to give my class an assignment to choose one word from the OED and trace its heritage from its inception. Body words, such as “hand” or “leg” worked very well, and my students enjoyed presenting the word in essay form. We have a wealth of language.

    • When I taught language, asking students to look up ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ (and other male/female pairings, such as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’) was always good. It revealed a lot about 1,000 years or so of history!