Smurf, Nerf, Buff, and More Old Words With New Meanings You Should Know

Smurf, Nerf, Buff, and More Old Words With New Meanings You Should Know
Photo: Aisyaqilumaranas, Shutterstock

The spread of modern technology has changed nearly everything in our lives — including what even the most common of words mean. Rather than invent a word for each novel thing or concept, our language is flexible enough that we can just borrow old words and tweak their meanings. We don’t even need to think about it much! We’re cool like that.

Below are some examples of relatively recent shifts in definitions driven by technology, nouns that are now verbs, and terminology that video-gamers have claimed for themselves.

Old words with new meanings

Catfish — in its verb form — once meant “to fish for catfish.” Now it means that and “to trick someone online by setting up a fake profile.” As a noun, it can refer to either the fish or one who catfishes online. It’s only been around since 2010, and comes from the documentary Catfish.

The Cloud: We know exactly when the “cloud” was first used in public to refer not to the fluffy white forms above us but to the storage of data on faraway servers: Aug. 9, 2006 when Google CEO Eric Schmidt discussed “cloud computing” at a tech conference.

Handle: Using handle to mean “alias” actually pre-dates the widespread use of the internet. It first gained popularity among CB-radio-using truckers of the 1970s who referred to each other by their handles instead of their names.

Ping: Ping used to simply mean a short ringing sound, or to make a short ringing sound. Now, though, it also refers to a computer querying another computer to verify a connection, or one person sending an electronic message to another person. (I haven’t heard back from her yet; I’ll ping her again.)

Tweet: Twitter hijacked the word “tweet,” and birds are pissed.

Viral: This adjective originally referred to biological viruses, then came to describe computer viruses, and now can mean anything that spreads like a virus.

Drone: Drone meaning “remote controlled aircraft” was first used in 1936 to describe an early pilotless craft. It caught on.

Like: “Like” can mean, like, a ton of different things, but before the rise of social media, the phrases “He gave me a like” or “my meme got a million likes” wouldn’t have made sense.

OLD: This just-catching-on-now word is an almost-acronym for “online dating.”

Nouns that have become verbs

Informally, you can verb any noun you want, but here are some that have caught on.

Troll: Annoying people who mess with others for their own amusement have always been around, but calling them “trolls” and describing what they do as “trolling” seems to date back to 1990s internet chat-speak.

Spam: Spam, the canned meat product, was released in 1937. But spam, unwanted messages or email, got its name from that Monty Python sketch where the word “spam” is sung repeatedly to drown out dialogue. Calling repeated/unwanted messages “spam” seems to have come from early chat programs used in the 1970s, but the first documented usage was in 1990. Someone archived a discussion on a multi user dungeon about the origin of the word “spam.” The first documented commercial spam message was an ad for a new model of Digital Equipment Corporation computers. It was sent on ARPANET in 1978 and 393 people were spammed in the incident.

Friend: Using “friend” as a verb goes back to the early 13th century, but it meant something like “to act as a friend to” as opposed to “making friends with someone,” and its usage fell out of favour. The modern meaning is more like “befriend” and dates back to early social media networks like MySpace, where Tom friended everyone.

Text: Using “text” as a verb is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to believe it’s only been widely used since around the early 2000s. The oldest appearance of “texting” (meaning “to send a text message”) online was in 1998, although “text” meaning “to inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters” dates back to the 1500s.

Gamer-specific words and their definitions

Nerf: When developers reconfigure a game element to make it less powerful, it is said to be “nerfed.” Example: “I can’t believe they nerfed Luigi in Super Smash Bros. 4!” From the foam football.

Buff: The opposite of “nerf.” Buffing is when game devs make a game element more powerful. It’s also used in PRGs and MMORPGS to describe a temporary, player-given boost.

Camping: Finding an advantageous position in a shooter game and just staying there. Whether you think this is a legitimate tactic depends on whether or not you’re a camper.

Easter egg: Hidden content. In the late 1970s, an Atari programmer included his name in a secret section of the game Adventure! and didn’t tell anyone. An Atari executive called it an Easter egg for players to find, and the name stuck. It now can refer to something hidden in any kind of media.

Grind: Performing repetitive tasks in a game to gain some advantage (eventually).

Mod: An altercation of a game by fans or amateur developers. It’s short for “modification.”

Smurf: Higher level player making a lower level alt in order to thwart match-making features and smash noobs. This dates back to the 1990s and a couple of Warcraft II players who chose “PapaSmurf” and “Smurfette” for their low-level characters.

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