The hidden history behind ‘booty calls’ and other slang words

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Ralph Keyes is a word nerd. And we call him that thanks to Dr. Seuss, who coined the word “nerd” in his 1950 book “If I Ran the Zoo” (yes, one of the books his estate is pulling out of print). It was the name of one of Seuss’ fictional creatures, but soon took on the modern meaning.

With his new book, “The Hidden History of Coined Words” (Oxford University Press), Keyes, who has written about retro language, euphemisms and much more, reveals other surprising origins of common words.

Here are some of them:

Frenemies

Radio personality Walter Winchell
Radio personality Walter Winchell
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Long before the much-analyzed relationship between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry became grist for Page Six, a famous newspaper columnist was the first to use this now-common term in print. In a 1953 column, Walter Winchell asked, “Howz about calling the Russians our Frienemies?” Despite the changed spelling, the sentiment is the same.

Booty call

Duice's single, "Booty Call" over
Duice’s single, “Booty Call”

The song “Booty Call,” from hip-hop duo Duice, came out in 1993. Duice’s Anthony “Creo-D” Darlington has said that in the mid-1980s, he and his friends used pay phones to “call that booty” — later shortened to making booty calls. Takashi Bufford, the co-screenwriter of the 1997 movie “Booty Call,” said that in the early ’80s, he and his pals would make what they called late-night booty calls from bar phone booths. As for the word booty, that goes way back to the Elizabethan era, Keyes wrote, when it was “slang for genitalia, a play on body.” And Fats Waller co-wrote and recorded a song “Come and Get It” in 1941, with the line, “I’ve gotta get myself some booty.”

Wimp

In her 1897 fairy tale collection, British children’s book author Evelyn Sharp introduced a group of children who pulled pranks on others, but broke into tears when the same was done to them. She called them the Wymps. “Before long,” Keyes told us, “this term, respelled ‘wimps,’ was applied to all manner of feckless individual.”

Gung-ho

During World War II Western observers in China heard a slogan used by Chinese worker-soldier teams — “kung” meaning work, and “ho,” together. A Marine colonel, Evans Carlson used the Anglicized gung-ho as the “Battle Cry of the Marine Raiders.” A 1943 Hollywood film, “Gung Ho!” about the real-life Makin Island raid in the Pacific, popularized the expression over here. A young Robert Mitchum played a private in the movie.

Gung Ho!: The Story of Carlson's Makin Island Raiders and movie poster.
A scene from the 1943 film, Gung Ho!: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders starring Randolph Scott.
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Nylon

red nylons on a leg
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When DuPont first developed a new synthetic fiber, its chemical name was polyhexamethyleneadipamide, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Those on the decadelong project, which finished in 1938, used the working name Fiber 66. The president of the company proposed “Delaware,” for his firm’s home state. Another wacky suggestion was “Duparooh,” an acronym for “DuPont pulls a rabbit out of hat.” The chair of a naming committee offered “norun,” but the fabric did run. Another name, nuron, “brought moron to mind,” wrote Keyes. Nilon was closer, but could be pronounced in different ways. Finally, someone hit on nylon.

Saran Wrap

saran wrap

The clear, clingy stuff Americans have been wrapping their leftovers in since the 1950s was given the name by a Dow Chemical Co. chemist, Jack Riley. Clearly a family man, he named it for his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Ann.

Big bang

British astronomer, mathematician, and science fiction writer Fred Hoyle
Fred Hoyle coined “Big Bang” to describe the theory which he opposed.
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The British astrophysicist who came up with the name didn’t even believe in the now-accepted theory of the birth of the universe. Fred Hoyle, hired by the BBC in post-war Britain to discuss cosmology, “never imagined it would be taken seriously … become part of the lexicon, both scientific and lay,” wrote Keyes. Sky & Telescope magazine conducted a contest in 1993 to come up with a better name. But it’s hard to imagine a hit TV show about physics nerd Sheldon Cooper and his pals called, say, “The Hubble Bubble Theory” — just one of the 13,000 rejected entries.

Bluetooth

The wireless technology that we all take for granted was named for a 10th century Scandinavian king who united Denmark and Norway. “It was just a jokey placeholder,” said Keyes, but the name stuck. That king was nicknamed Bluetooth for his tooth so decayed that it looked blue.

Tabloid

The type of newspaper that’s more compact than its broadsheet rivals, and more clever and fun with its headlines, got its name from a medicine. In the 1880s, a British company came out with a medicine compressed into a tablet with the trademarked name Tabloid. The smaller-size, compressed papers took on the description tabloid.

Robot

Retro tin robots
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We can thank an early 20th century Czech playwright and his artist brother for this one. In a sci-fi play Karel Capek wrote in 1920, work is done by “manufactured beings.” According to Keyes, Capek complained to his brother, Josef, that he couldn’t think of a name for these creatures. Josef said “robot” off the Czech word robota, for involuntary worker. The play that became “R.U.R.” was called Rossum’s Universal Robots when it ran in London and New York.

Guy

Originally intended as an insult, the term “guy” comes from Guy Fawkes, who was convicted and sentenced to death for his part in a plot to blow up Britain’s House of Lords. Back then, Keyes wrote, such “miscreants” became known as guys. Later, “in the colonies, however, ‘guy’ became synonymous with ‘chap,’ ‘bloke,’ or ‘fellow.’ Among Americans, a regular guy was an admirable person.”

Guy Fawkes, the most famous of the conspirators who attempted to destroy the Houses of Parliament in the "Gunpowder Plot".
Guy Fawkes, the most famous of the conspirators who attempted to destroy the Houses of Parliament in the “Gunpowder Plot.”
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Knickerbockers

1884 engraving of Washington Irving
Washington Irving
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The name of the local basketball team that plays at Madison Square Garden has a link to The Post. The Oct. 26, 1809 issue of the New York Evening Post had a notice with the headline “DISTRESSING.” It told the tale of a “small elderly gentleman” named Diedrich Knickerbocker who disappeared from a Mulberry Street hotel, leaving his possessions and an unpaid bill behind. That included a manuscript on the history of New York, which went on to be published. It all turned out to be a hoax by Washington Irving, who wrote the farcical history book. “Since the rambunctious tone affected by ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ so successfully captured the voice of a certain type of New Yorker,” Keyes wrote, “these lively citizens came to be known as ‘Knickerbockers.’”

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