'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins

PHOTO: "Pimple" is a word that has been around as long as the written word, but "zit" originated in the 1960s.
Getty Images

"Bacne" is an official contender for the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors have confirmed.

That's right. The word used to describe back acne could soon join the ranks of words like "chortle," a word made up by Lewis Carroll, the author who wrote "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in the 1860s. Carroll combined "chuckle" and "snort" to create chortle.

Sort of the same, right?

The new potential dictionary addition got us wondering about other weird health words we take for granted. Where did they come from and why are they here?

Click through to find out where "bacne" came from and learn the origins of such words as "booger," "zit," "wart" and more.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


Believe it or not, the term "bacne" didn't come from a bunch of mean high school girls.

Not at first, anyway.

It first appeared online in 1994, when people were speculating about whether certain pro wrestlers were on steroids. Back acne was considered a sign of steroid use, and the two words soon morphed into bacne, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and executive producer of Vocabulary.com who has written about words for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

But by the late 1990s, mean teenagers were saying it, and it often accompanied such subjects as "band geek," said Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "Many people other than pro wrestlers get bacne," Martin said with a laugh, explaining that if the word was only used in one community, it wouldn't be dictionary-worthy. "This was a word the world was ready for."

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


Booger originated with a supernatural figure: the boogeyman, Martin said. (Or a boggart, if you're not speaking American English. Think Harry Potter.)

Then, in the 1890s, the word "booger" started popping up to mean dried mucus from the nose, Zimmer said.

But neither Martin nor Zimmer could explain how a word for snot evolved from the word for the ghoulish boogeyman.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


The word "period" as a euphamism for menstruation first appeared in 1762, Martin said." Period" was already being used to refer to other things on the calendar, such as a lunar period. Since menstruation is "a little bit taboo," she said people have devised many ways to talk about it.

"Sexual or scatological terms, that's where we have the richest slang or euphemisms," she said. "There's a reason to talk about it but it's a little bit impolite."

Then again, people aren't always polite, she said. "Poontang" is in the Oxford English Dictionary as a slang word for sex. It originated in the 1920s, possibly from the French word for prostitute, "putain."

Martin added that there have also been many witty ways of saying someone is drunk or high throughout language history as well. Benjamin Franklin came up with more than 200 words for "drunk" in the Drinker's Dictionary in the 18th century.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


The word "wart" goes all the way back to the earliest relics of English, Martin said.

"Some things are so apparent that we've always needed a word for them," she said.

It's related to words in the Germanic language that mean about the same thing and dates to the year 725, Zimmer said.

"It's about the earliest you can go in the written record," he said.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


The word "pimple" is about as old as the word "wart," Martin said, but the word "zit" came to mean pimple much more recently.

In the 1960s, teenagers started to call their pimples zits, but "the origin is a mystery," she said.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


The words "cancer" and "carcinoma" both mean crab and date to the Middle Ages, Martin said. According to early records, the swollen veins around visible tumors looked like crabs' legs, she said.

But because this was so long ago, linguists only know this from second- and third-hand records. It's not clear who said it first.

'Bacne' and Other Weird Health Word Origins


Another portmanteau to go along with "bacne" is "cankle," a combination of a calf and and ankle. Like bacne, it's not something anyone wants to have.

Although it may have originated earlier, the word really caught on in 2001 when the movie "Shallow Hal" came out, Zimmer said.

"With terms like 'cankle' or 'bacne,' it shows the creativity people have with language by taking existing words and smashing them together," he said. "It implies that your calf actually blends into your ankle without any clear separation between the two of them."

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...