10 Interesting Facts about Modern Words

Ten surprising stories and histories surrounding the language of the modern world

This week we’ve been reading, and thoroughly enjoying, a review copy of Caroline Taggart’s book New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World. The book takes a look at supposedly ‘modern’ or contemporary words and examines their histories, revealing how they are often reworkings of older words which originally had different meanings. (This is something we particularly enjoy, as exemplified by our previous facts about modern words that originated in literature, which casts an appraising eye over such ‘recent’ formations as ‘selfie’ and ‘twerk’.) So Taggart’s book, which is out next week, is on a subject close to our hearts, and had a fair bit to teach us about word origins. Here are our ten favourite things which we learnt from New Words for Old.

The word farce used to refer to comic interludes that were inserted as ‘padding’ into religious songs and chants. Since the word comes from the French meaning ‘stuffing’, this makes sense – and the word’s comical-musical origins explain how it came to be associated with extravagant forms of stage comedy.

Although the term jigsaw puzzle dates from the early twentieth century, precursors to the modern jigsaw date from New Words for Old book coveras early as the 1760s, where wooden maps were used in teaching geography.

An early radio soap operaMyrt and Marge (1931), was not sponsored by a soap manufacturer (as was the norm – hence the term) but by Wrigley’s, famous purveyor of chewing gum. Their sponsorship even extended to the characters’ names: Myrt and Marge’s surnames in the show were Spear and Minter.

The word brunch was coined by British writer Guy Beringer in 1895 in a Hunter’s Weekly article titled ‘Brunch: A Plea’. Beringer specifically had Sunday morning hungover drinkers in mind: those who were too delicate after a heavy Saturday night’s drinking to manage breakfast before church, but who equally found the idea of a large Sunday lunch unpalatable. A Punch article from a year later suggested the word brunch should be used for those meals taken nearer to breakfast, and blunch for meals that were nearer to lunch (a bit like elevenses, we suppose). But blunch never took off.

The first proper biopic was Disraeli, a 1929 film about the nineteenth-century British Prime Minister.

The word phishing, meaning to ‘fish’ for private information such as bank details, usually by email, may have been influenced by phreaking, a phenomenon named in the 1970s whereby people would hack into telephone networks in order to make phone calls without paying for them. The word was therefore a portmanteau of phone and freak, and it was this ‘ph-‘ word which may well have inspired ‘phishing’ – not just an alternative spelling of ‘fishing’ but also a sort of portmanteau of a portmanteau, drawing on an existing blend word – phreaking – and the word fishing. However, this remains speculative.

The word spam was coined in a competition. The company who invented the tinned meat supposedly ran a competition to find a good name for the new product, and an actor named Kenneth Daigneau won with his suggestion, which is supposed to be a blend of spiced and ham. Then, in the 1970s, the Monty Python team used the word in their famous song, which repeats the word over and over again, and it was this comic song that led to the name of a tinned meat product being associated with online junk mail.

The very first website, set up in the early 1990s, had a Frequently Asked Questions section.

The word chauffeur is from the French verb meaning ‘to heat’, and originated in the days of steam trains – a ‘chauffeur’ was one who would act as stoker to the fire in the train’s engine.

The first Post Office was established in the seventeenth century by Charles II, predating the penny post and the postbox by nearly two centuries.

Continue your language trivia odyssey with our interesting language facts, our pick of the best unusual but highly useful words, and our modern words with literary connections – featuring the true origins of Google, email, and a whole host of other words.