I’m a nerd. No really, stop, BBC! You!?! Yes, I’m in fact such a big nerd that I tend to look up word origins in my spare time because I’m fascinated by our language. The odder the origin, the better. I’ve got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications.
In any case, I thought I’d share some of this random crap with you in the form of the new acronym-ific series. I give you – Word Origins from Left Field – that’s right, the WOLF (oh, how clever is she? She made an acronym out of her agency’s name!) Er… ignore the fact that the “from” doesn’t fit.
So today let’s talk about me. OK, not really, but at least the form of me you’re probably most familiar with – my feline self. The word cat has undergone some serious transformation over time, and I see it popping back up in my teens these days as they (unknowingly) are exhibiting Beat identity.
Obviously we’re aware of cat in the feline sense, and probably quite a few of you associate it with jazz slang, but did you know it was first used as a derogatory term for migrant workers and hobos? It was a not so nice allusion to the homelessness of both populations.
Only after that did the jazz culture pick up the term, originally only using it to refer to jazz musicians themselves. Louis Armstrong referred to himself and other musicians as “cats” as early as 1922. By the early 1940’s, cat had shifted towards a general term for anyone who liked jazz, swing or jive music. The hipsters, Beats, and New Bohemians of the 1950’s adopted the term and used it to describe an average, run-of-the-mill person.
How do I know all this? This is not off the top of my head, believe it or not. My own curiosity from overhearing teen-speak drove me to this little gem of a book: Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang by Tom Dalzell. Check it out, or you’re in danger of being a square cat, instead of a hep cat.