Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

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