16 Modern Words with The Most Uncanny Origins

Do you ever wonder about the origins of some modern words that you read on the Internet or frequently use yourself? I know I do. Now go ahead, call me a ‘word-nerd’, but this is how I know about a lot of cool stuff, like the fact that many words we use today thinking them as very twenty-first-century, were in fact originated quite a while ago in the most uncanny of places.

Basically what happens is that in any language, words tend to evolve. They may lose their original meanings and start giving out a new explanation to their context. Sometimes they even travel from their native speakers across oceans to become a part of a new language altogether. And when we start tracing their roots, we’re left nothing but surprised.

In the write up that follows, I am presenting a small list of such words that have originated at places (or by the people) you least expect them to be.


If you see someone who’s enthusiastic about technology or bookish stuff, you simply call him or her a nerd. Surprisingly, the word ‘nerd’ was used first time in the literature by none other than world’s most creative word inventor Dr. Seuss in his book If I Ran the Zoo – (1950).


To be honest, I think that Dr. Seuss was actually a ‘word nerd’ in the true sense. After all, he wrote a whole book under 50 words just to address a challenge.


Though prom is commonly known as that special occasion when high school girls in colorful gowns and boys in ill-fitting tuxedos pose awkwardly for photos that they will cherish (or regret) for the rest of their lives.

From its origins though, it came from the word “promenade”, the formal parading of guests at banquets that universities in the US held in 19th century for each year’s graduating class.


The word Tween is often used for the restless pre-teens (usually crazy about Justin Bieber and Hannah Montana), and in the field of animation, as the creation of successive frames between two key frames (e.g. motion tween).

But who could have thought that such a hip word was actually used in 1973 for the first time by the great J.R.R. Tolkien in his world-famous book The Lord of the Rings where he described the Hobbit in his tweens. Interesting right?


Everyone knows about Yahoo being the coolest search engine and email service provider till a few decades ago (well, basically until Gmail came into the scene). Also, almost all of us have read Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels in our childhood. Yes, but what’s the connection?

The word Yahoo traces its origins to this famous novel in which Yahoo was referred to a race of brutes. Thinking of it, today Yahoo does seem quite basic and backward as compared to other search engines. Wouldn’t you agree?


Denim is perhaps the most universally worn fabric that’s always in fashion. Though a symbol of modern clothing, the word denim originated from French serge de Nimes, meaning “the fabric of Nimes” (the place in France where it was originally invented in the 17th century). However, with the passage of time only de Nimes was left that evolved into Denim.


So next time you wear your denim jacket to look swank, remember that it’s a centuries old fabric that you’re donning.


Anyone who’s in the business of graphic designing and printing may know very well what a pamphlet is (and how much your client annoys you with his revisions for this small piece of print). But did you also know that the word pamphlet has quite old and rather romantic beginnings?

Around 14th century, a Latin love poem became very popular in Europe and it was copied many times and passed from person to person. The poem titled Pamphilus (means: concerning love), eventually giving us the word Pamphlet.


Science-fiction has often provided inspiration for some real scientific works. A similar thing happened when the writer William Gibson mentioned the term cyberspace around 1986 in his science-fiction novel.

The word was later picked up by the actual cyber community to refer to a ‘space of inter-connected network of computers’, thus cyberspace became part of the slang.


Fanzine is actually a portmanteau of the words fan and magazine. Interestingly, fanzine was invented in 1940 by a die-hard fan of the science-fiction genre named Russ Chauvenet. To think of it, today’s Facebook fan pages are a kind of online fanzines, don’t you think?

Atomic Bomb

Another case of science-fiction lending a word to the scientific community, is Atomic bomb. HG Wells, the father of science-fiction, was the first to imagine a uranium-based hand grenade that “would continue to explode indefinitely” in his 1914 novel The World Set Free.


Wells’ concepts in the novel made a great impression on Leo Szilard, a physicist who patented the idea of a nuclear reactor to make the actual Atomic bomb.


Originally a noun, weird is one of those words that lost its original meanings with time. Weird in Old English means “destiny” or “fate”, but with passage of time its meanings turned into “someone who can control his fate”, or in other words someone rather “unnatural”.

This led to its modern meanings as someone “strange”, or in other words, weird. Wow! How weird is the word weird.


The first thing that comes into mind when you think of a spaceship is the Star Wars trilogy, or something like that. But the origins of this word has much to do with J. J. Astor’s 1894 novel A Journey in Other Worlds, that’s about a futuristic tale of a manned spacecraft exploring the space.


Every other day an advanced robot is designed and programmed to do different tasks to help the humanity. The word robot however, has rather grim roots. First coined in a 1920 play, robot comes from Slavic word robota meaning “a forced laborer”.


The name robota was actually given to the peasants who were bind in compulsory service under the feudal system that was widespread in the 19th century Europe. So the word Robot eloquently fits the concept of manufactured artificial workers. How ironic!


Though, Twitter today has become synonymous to the popular micro-blogging platform, however, the word itself was mentioned for the first time by the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, somewhere in the 14th century.

The poet referred Twitter as “continuous chirping” (or tweeting), which is actually not that far from how some people use Twitter these days…


If you call freelancers as corporate mercenaries, working for different employers on contractual basis, you wouldn’t be too far from the word’s original meanings. The word ‘freelance’ comes from Sir Walter Scott’s renowned novel Ivanhoe, in which a lord refers to his paid army of ‘free lances’.

So, next time someone hires your freelance services, be happy to think yourself as a modern day soldier in arms.


And lastly, the most hip and trendy word in this list (that you’ll mostly find in rap music these days) is Swagger. You won’t believe it when I’ll tell you that it was William Shakespeare who first mentioned swagger in his play, The Midsummer Night’s Dream as “carrying oneself in pride and insolent manner”.


That’s pretty much self-explanatory when Cher sings “swagger jagger” in that extremely vibrant video.

Some conclusive words

Now you have enough knowledge to boast among your friends of being a know-it-all. But if you think that only a linguist or an English language teacher may have a practical use of all this, then you’re wrong.

In my views, if you’re a logical thinker, no matter which walk of life you belong to, knowing the source of a word may help you make sense of it, which can eventually lead to sharpening your overall learning process.

Do share with us in the comments section if you know some words with unexpected origins