Sleeping Beauties

"New" words that are actually old as dirt. Pop culture sure has a way of spreading new words, like when Stephen Colbert...

"New" words that are actually old as dirt.

Pop culture sure has a way of spreading new words, like when Stephen Colbert invented "truthiness" and the social media world coughed up "unfriend." Terms of this sort spread like a VD, and their starting points are so well-known that it makes the job of etymologists and word-collectors easy.

One problem: Both those words have a history going back centuries before their seemingly obvious origins. In a recent column by Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer on the surprisingly old history of "unfriend," I think I see the swaddling infancy of a term for this type of term:
When the New Oxford American Dictionary selected unfriend as its 2009 Word of the Year, Oxford University Press senior lexicographer Christine Lindberg was quick to point out that the verb long predates the Facebook era. As she explained in an NPR interview, the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation for unfriend from 1659. "I think it's a remarkable resurrection," Lindberg told NPR. "In a way, I look at unfriend as the sleeping beauty of 2009 words."

"Sleeping beauties" is perfect for describing words that were in use at some point, and then faded away, only to reawaken to widespread use decades or even centuries down the line. It's as fitting and catchy as other web-spread lingo, such as eggcorns, snowclones, crash blossoms, and the Colbert suffix. Let's add "sleeping beauty" to the list.

"Truthiness" is a great example of a sleeping beauty. Seemingly coined in the debut episode of The Colbert Report in 2005, it was also used back in 1824, as we know from this OED example: "Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness." Like many sleeping beauties, the word's reinvention included a shift in meaning: the old truthiness was a truly truthy quality, unlike the bucket of BS epitomized by the Colbert version. Homer Simpson's "Doh!" is about 20 years old-or so 99% of humanity would think-unless YOU check the OED again to see examples going back to 1945. Likewise, the Seinfeld-propelled regift dates to the Larry David-free world of 1727.

Another nineties catchphrase-the Wayne's World favorite "Not!"-sure seemed new at the time, but it was used in that sense as far back as 1860: "She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did-not." The title of a 1993 American Speech article by Jesse Sheidlower and Jonathan Lighter put it best: "A Recent Coinage (Not!)". There's definitely something about popular culture, and maybe TV in particular, that allows sleeping beauties to arise.

Another factor is the common (and, to many, annoying) phenomenon of a noun becoming a verb, which makes words feel new even when they aren't. As Zimmer said in an email interview, "unfriend" made a noun-to-verb journey, and others examples abound: "People think of verbs like ‘dialogue' and ‘conference' as artifacts of modern management-speak, but they first got verbed long ago (Shakespeare used ‘dialogue' as a verb, while the OED dates ‘conference' to 1846). Each generation of English speakers can create verbs out of nouns and other parts of speech without realizing that there's nothing new under the sun. Often the verbs are reinvented to relate to new contexts (e.g., ‘conference' now has to do with conference calls), but to think that no one has weirded language with verbs before is to fall prey to the recency illusion."

That concept was coined by Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky, who describes the recency illusion asone of several illusions that (partially) explain why much of what people say and think about language falls somewhere between grade-A rubbish and weapons-grade malarkey.

The recency illusion is perfectly named, but "sleeping beauties" is still up for grabs as a term. Zimmer prefers "Rip Van Winkles," and on the American Dialect Society listserv, John M. Baker offered another possibility: "I prefer ‘late bloomer' as the name for such words, but I suppose ‘Sleeping Beauty' is more colorful. ‘Rip Van Winkle' seems an unsuitable term, since that implies an extended quiescence followed by a return to a prior state." Eric Nielsen's suggestion of "Lazarus words" works well for words that appeared more dead than snoozing. Depending on the word's path, I guess you could choose your own name/metaphor.

But this is my column, and damn it, "sleeping beauty" works best as a blanket term for these words. The protagonist of that tale slept for 100 years, which is pretty close to the hibernation period of some of these terms. Plus-and maybe this is just my word-loving nature coming out-there's no doubt that "unfriend," "doh," "truthiness" and "not" are beauties, and useful beauties at that. It's a fairy tale name that debunks linguistic fairy tales: What more could you want?

Illustration by Will Etling.