A Play On Words: How Modern Words and Phrases Came To Be

Language is an ever-changing construct that serves to embody our thoughts. The origins of the many words that we use in our everyday vocabulary often go ignored or completely unnoticed.


David Pagan

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This monument in Independence National Historical Park displays the Founding Fathers’ commitment to free speech and a free press. These rights have helped to catalyze the development of language and culture within the United States and beyond.

Language is a tool we use to express our thoughts, and it can serve as a form of art when honing written language into literature. What people often overlook, however, is the complexity hidden within each individual word that we use. Words and phrases develop and change with the times, in response to both major and minor historical events, cementing themselves into popular culture. Whole eras in history can be defined by the slang and buzzwords in fashion during their respective time periods. Many of these changes in language are catalyzed by developments in technology. 

The creation of the printing press greatly expanded our capability to share information, but it also helped shape the way in which we learn about language. “Uppercase” and “lowercase” letters are called such because the letters in the printing press were set by hand and then stored in a literal case. Smaller letters were used more frequently than capital letters, so they were kept more conveniently in the lower case. 

The creation of the telephone revolutionized how we communicate with one another. It did not just change the means of talking to one another, but went so far as to change the way we speak. When the famous inventor Thomas Edison designed a new and improved telephone, he suggested people greet one another with a “hello.” The word “hello” has German roots like many words in the English language, but it was seldom used prior to Edison advocating for it. On the other hand Alexander Graham Bell, whose 1876 telephone patent served as inspiration for Edison’s, believed a proper telephone greeting to be “ahoy,” a word of Dutch origin. When telephone books gained popularity and began printing “hello” as the suggested form of greeting, the word stuck.

Interestingly enough, many words and phrases also have significant religious undertones. The term “goodbye” is a contraction of the longer phrase “God be with you” that was popular in the 16th century. Other languages with Latin roots have farewells of similar origins, including “adios” and “adieu,” which literally mean “to God” and were once parts of longer phrases. Across the Atlantic, the term “blimey” is used when someone is startled or surprised. This is another contraction, this time for “[may God] blind me,” a swear used in response to a shock. Not wanting to use the lord’s name in vain, the term was abbreviated. In a similar instance, Australians say “crikey” in place of “Christ” when expressing their surprise.

Beyond the telephone, the creation of the internet and social media platforms have greatly changed the ways in which we speak. A wave of new acronyms entered our vocabulary, so-called “text speak” that allowed us to shorten words and phrases. Three letters is all it takes to express full phrases, like LOL (laugh out loud), OMW (on my way), and WTW (what’s the word?). A current popular phrase that has baffled certain individuals of the older generation, is “W rizz.” The “W” is an abbreviation for a win, or winning, used to show success. “Rizz” is an abbreviation for charisma, used most commonly in respect to romantic situations. So in essence, a person with “W rizz” is someone who displays strong charisma. 

Another addition of the digital age, emojis have allowed us to convey a large swath of emotion with the use of a single image. Many function as expected, with a smiling emoji showing happiness and laughing emoji showing humor. Some of these emojis have gained different meanings than they were initially intended for, however, such as the popular use of the skull emoji and the loudly crying emoji as responses to laughable situations. 

The term “gaslight” became popular as a result of social media, but its meaning has existed for decades. “Gaslight” is a form of psychological manipulation that is employed to make a person doubt their own opinions and experiences. This meaning originates from a 1936 play of the same name, where the husband of the heroine dimmed their house lights but denied doing so, making her question her own sanity. This word has entered into regular use by the media in reporting politics as a result of partisanship and a deep distrust towards many politicians in office. 

The larger phrase, “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” is an adage similar to “live, laugh, love” originally used to point out the irony of performative activism regarding feminism. To “gatekeep” is to restrict the options of others, similar to how a person guarding a literal gate restricts access from physically moving forward. The term “girlboss” originated in 2014 in a memoir written by Sophia Amoruso, CEO of the company Nasty Gal. Her company would later file for bankruptcy in response to a discrimination lawsuit alleging that she was wrongfully firing pregnant employees, as well as reports that the workplace was toxic. “Girlboss” used to be a part of a movement that promised women would not be judged or overlooked in the workplace in the way that they have been throughout history. 

However, it was soon revealed that women were still being undermined despite the promises given by companies bearing the “girlboss” branding. Appointing more women as CEOs was a step in the right direction, but the actions of many of these same CEOs were harmful as they continued to undermine other women in the workplace. Once a term of empowerment, “girlboss” became a piece of satire in response to the empty promises it held. By linking social empowerment to monetary gain, this term helped feed into capitalism rather than to push for meaningful social change. “Girlboss” became tied to “gaslight” and “gatekeep” as people associated so-called girl-bosses with their practices of manipulating employees into a toxic environment and gatekeeping equal opportunity. 

It can be difficult at times to source the true origin of some phrases, as many enter into popular use swiftly and people soon forget how they started. The popular idiom “raining cats and dogs” is one such phrase of debated origin. Some think it is the evolution of an old English word “catadupe,” meaning waterfall. The word is derived from Latin, which in turn derived that word from classical Greek, and was originally used in reference to the cataracts of the Nile River. Another theory is that it may come from the Greek expression, “cata doxa,” meaning “contrary to belief,” implying that it is raining unbelievably hard. A separate but equally compelling possibility is that the phrase originated from associations of dogs with wind and cats with storms. In Norse legend, the god of storms, Odin, is often pictured with dogs and wolves as representations of the wind. Cats are associated with storms as they are the reputed companions of witches, who are said to fly on broomsticks during storms. 

The phrase “break a leg,” commonly used to wish good luck to an actor or performer, is another idiom of shrouded origin. The most common story is that one is “breaking the leg line,” meaning that performers have passed the barrier onto the stage and have a paying role. Also popular is that the term originated from past superstitions that it is bad luck to wish someone “good luck,” and that they should instead wish the opposite. Other theories reference traditions that have faded in history, such as the Greeks who would stomp their feet instead of clapping, or the Elizabethan audiences who would stomp their chairs, and the excess of these could lead to broken legs. A slightly funnier take is that understudies would tell this to the main performers in hope that they would be unfit to perform, which would in turn push the understudies into the limelight. 

A person in the “limelight” is someone who has captured the attention of others. This originates from old theatrical traditions, in which stages were lit by a literal limelight. In the time before electricity, a mineral called lime was heated, producing a bright white light that became an essential part of performances.

Over in the sports world, one topic of heated controversy is whether or not “soccer” is the proper term for the sport more commonly referred to as football. The main adversaries in this debate are Americans and the English, who insist that since the sport originated in England, it should rightfully be called football as they do in their country. What many overlook is that just as the sport began in England, so did the term “soccer.” Soccer and rugby were initially different rule sets of the same game, until they were separately codified by the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union in the late 19th century. This was around the same time that American football was taking form in the United States from the models established by soccer and rugby. In the early 20th century, English students had a fad for adding “-er” to the end of words, shortening them into slang terms. As such, Rugby Football became “rugger” and Association Football became “soccer.” After World War II, Americans who had been overseas in England brought with them this game of soccer as it was known, and Americans continued to refer to the game as soccer long after it fell out of fashion in England. Once a simple trendy word among schoolboys, the term “soccer” is still at the forefront of people’s minds amidst a global debate.

As time goes on, and language develops, we continue to gain new ways to communicate and express ourselves. Words are constantly changing, and everyday people are coming up with new ways of using them. Who knows what new words we might see in future?

So in essence, a person with “W rizz” is someone who displays strong charisma.