Slang has made its way so much into our everyday language even the dictionaries add words like Google, emoji, and selfie. Slang words came from somewhere and in this list we find out where some of our most common and popular phrases originated. Check out these 25 bizarre and unexpected origins of today’s slang.
Jumping on the bandwagon
Dating back to famous circus leader P.T. Barnum, the bandwagon was the vehicle that carried the circus group. As circuses were quite popular and attracted many people, politicians started using bandwagons to campaign in the late 19th century. From there it took on the meaning to show support for a politician (or anything, nowadays).
M.C. Hammer may have re-popularized legit for some of us with his song “2 Legit 2 Quit”, but the word originally showed up at the end of the 19th century. Theatre groups used it to refer to “legitimate drama”, a well-written piece.
Birds and the Bees
It’s not clear how the birds and the bees came to be a conservative way of explaining sex to kids, but Cole Porter’s 1928 song “Let’s Do It” certainly seems to reference it as common speak. “And that’s why birds do it, bees do it, Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”
It costs an arm and a leg
Meaning a huge amount of money or value, an arm and a leg may have come to its current meaning after World War II to represent the enormous sacrifices amputated veterans made for their countries. Though they didn’t pay with their lives, an arm and a leg is still a whole lot to lose.
Cool as the non-temperature related word we use today likely came from the Black community around 1933. Slang for fashionable in jazz circles, tenor saxophonist Lester Young is largely said to have popularized it.
All the Potterheads will be interested in this one. J.K. Rowling likely made the word muggle from the word mug (meaning fool in British English), but muggle used to mean “a tail like that of a fish”, a “female sweetheart”, or a joint of ganja.
This one doesn’t go to Xzibit from Pimp My Ride; rather, trick has meant “to dress, to adorn” for a half millennium. That’s where today’s meaning of being decked out comes from.
Similarly, to deck something used to be a more common way of “adorning” something, from the Middle Dutch dekken (to cover).
We can’t get enough of deck! Deck as in the sense of hitting someone originated around 1953 as a reference to hitting someone so hard they would fall to the deck (a covering or ship platform).
Geek first showed up in northern Britain in 1876 to refer to a fool. Americans tweaked the meaning and by 1957 it meant “an unsociable and over-diligent student”. Once computers turned up in the 80’s, geek also came to refer to its now second meaning as “an expert in computers or science”, but this meaning isn’t all negative.
English has used the word gay since the 1300’s in reference to cheery people, bright colours, and snazzy clothes. The next 500 years saw it further equated with carefree, promiscuous, and “living by prostitution”. No one’s entirely sure where the gay/homosexual link came in but it’s dated to 1922. The teenage sense of stupid or lame didn’t come about til the late 70’s or 90’s.
Referring to the basics or bare bones of something, nitty-gritty may have been used in referring to nit (a parasitic insect’s egg) and grits (finely ground corn) as tiny, fine things.
The musical style we know as jazz first got its name in 1915, attributed to the word’s prior meanings of “nonsense” or “energy, excitement”. Some people even say the word originally referred to sex but that’s a bit of a stretch.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first used zero tolerance in referring to their policy on pesticides in food items (e.g. no mercury in milk). It was later (around 1972) attributed to the famous War on Drugs by strictly applying the law in problem areas.
Dope has two primary origins. Doop is Dutch for “sauce” but dope can also refer to a fool. In the early 1800’s, any thick lubricant was called dope. A further refining of the word led to the meaning of the goop/sauce-like brown gunk that is opium.
Thanks to 16th century writers’ negative use of the word “lucre” for money, filthy rich derived from the slang term for money at the time, “the filthy”. It may have entered the American psyche during the Great Depression when some people used dirty, sleazy ways to get-rich-quick such as buying the homes of people who couldn’t afford to eat at deep discounts.
See you later, alligator
University of Florida Gators stand up – this one’s for you. Another jazz reference, alligators were the audience in swing performances (and the musicians were called hep-cats). It really became popular in the 1956 hit song of the same name by Bill Haley and the Comets.
Between a rock and a hard place
Human cultures ’round the world make references to two negative situations from which there is no good option. (Think about “the lesser of two evils” or “between the devil and the deep blue sea”.) This American-coined phrase first showed up in 1921 in reference to the US Bankers’ Panic of 1907 where miners were forced to choose between dangerous, underpaid work or unemployment and poverty.
Austin Powers’s favorite line, “Groovy, baby”, has been etched into our minds as typical 60’s culture, but the word dates back to 1930’s jazz. When somebody was really feeling the music and playing on point, it was said they were playing in the groove, referring to the groove of records.
Buck, as it refers to a U.S. dollar, dates back to 1856, likely by abbreviating buckskin. Buckskin was, literally, the skin of a buck (male deer) – an item often traded between the Native Americans and Europeans.
Pass the buck & the buck stops here
These meanings of buck likely refer to buck as an object formerly used in poker games to show who was the next dealer (like today’s dealer chip). Thus, the phrase pass the buck came to mean passing the responsibility and the buck stops here means the responsibility stops here.
Haywire is, hopefully not surprisingly, wire used to bind bales of hay together. As it was springy and somewhat uncontrollable, haywire has come to mean a person going mad or out of control.
A notch can be a mark or slit that serves as record of something. If someone or something is top-notch (showing up around 1900), it refers to them being at the very top of their game.
Now referring to the poor part of a city, skid row was originally attributed to the area in Seattle, Washington, where unemployed loggers would hang out. It was generally the road next to the skids (the planks used to rolls logs) where they would wait in hopes of finding work.
Cut to the chase
Ironically at the end of our list, cut to the chase’s meaning of getting to the point or conclusion likely came from early U.S. filmmaking. Most films in the 1920’s set up romantic storylines before getting into the exciting end of the movie – the chase sequence – what some would consider the good part!