10 Everyday Words Star Wars Gave Us

Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Episode IV, Star Wars: A New Hope, the film that lit lightsabers everywhere, was released 40 years ago today. For the first time, we (or at least those of us who were alive back then) met Luke and Leia, Obi-Wan and Vader, Han and Chewie, C-3PO and R2-D2. It was also the first time we heard Star Wars lingo, so much of which, as linguist Mark Peters says, is now commonplace. Here are 10 everyday words given to us by Star Wars.

1. JEDI

Good at something? Feel free to call yourself a Jedi. This term for a knight of the light side—and by extension, someone proficient in a particular field or skill—is said to come from the Japanese word jidaigeki, a genre of Japanese period dramas set during the Edo period or earlier. Such dramas often feature samurai warriors, ronin (samurai without masters), craftsmen, merchants, and government officials, and are also believed to be the inspiration behind the Star Wars films themselves.

2. JEDI MIND TRICK

Although we first witness the Jedi mind trick in the original Star Wars (“These are not the droids you’re looking for,” Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces a Stormtrooper), we don’t hear the term until Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. “You weak-minded fool!” Jabba the Hutt chastises his underling. “He's using an old Jedi mind trick.” Now the term refers to any illusion or subterfuge.

3. THE FORCE

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” Obi-Wan tells Luke. “It's an energy field created by all living things.” It’s also been used to refer to everything from positive vibes to inner strength. The force also refers to a body of police, while the word comes from the Latin fortis, “strong.”

4. THE DARK SIDE

Along with a light side, the Force also has a dark side. The phrase is now commonly used to describe the negative aspects of something. The Dark Side of Giving Employees Unlimited Time Off, Digging into the Dark Side of Our True Crime Obsession, and The Dark Side of Detroit’s Renaissance are just a few examples.

5. NERFHERDER

“You stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder!” Leia says to Han. This excellent insult seems to refer to zoophilia, says Peters. That is, a sort of, ahem, attraction to animals. Nerf, before becoming the brand name of soft, spongy toys, was originally a drag racing term meaning to bump another car, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). And in a collision of nerd universes, Nerf Herder is the name of the American rock band behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song.

6. STAR WARS

In the early 1980s, Star Wars became the derisive nickname for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Ronald Reagan’s proposed defense strategy of destroying enemy weapons in space with lasers and anti-ballistic missiles launched from satellites. Aerospace journalist Robert Hotz wrote about the “real star wars” in a 1982 issue of Space World magazine, while TIME promptly called Reagan’s initiative his “star wars defense concept” after the SDI was publicly announced a year later.

7. CARBONITE

Before carbonite referred to the material that encased Han Solo in Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, it was a coke-like material (1810), a kind of salt (1830), and a type of explosive (1890), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Star Wars definition was added to the venerable dictionary in 2008.

8. STORMTROOPER

“Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” Obi-Wan says. While stormtrooper wasn’t coined in the Star Wars universe, the films certainly popularized the term. Stormtrooper first came about during World War I, according to the OED, and referred to a soldier, especially a German one, trained to carry out sudden assaults. By the early 1930s, it meant a member of the Sturmabteilung, a paramilitary wing of the Nazis. According to Google Ngrams, the popularity of the term dropped after 1944, rose to a peak in the mid-1970s (around the time Star Wars was released), and an even higher peak in the late 1990s (Episode I, The Phantom Menace was released in 1999).

9. DROID

Droid is another term that was popularized by rather than coined in the Star Wars films. Short for android—which was coined in the late 1800s, but popularized in the 1950s by science fiction writers—droid made its first appearance in the stupendously titled short story, “Robots of the World! Arise!” by Mari Wolf: “They're stopping robots in the streets—household Robs, commercial Droids, all of them.” The OED lists no other usages until Star Wars. "I'm only a droid,” says Threepio, “and not very knowledgeable about such things.”

10. PADAWAN

The Phantom Menace gave us one good thing: the word padawan. Meaning a Jedi apprentice, the term is now used to refer to any apprentice. “One of my super young cooks—I call him a ‘padawan’—always tries to taste stuff,” a Top Chef alum recently told US Weekly. Padawan is also a municipality in Malaysia. The name is apparently a blend of the Bidayuh words Padja and Birawan, Padja the name of the eldest son of an ancient village elder and Birawan the word for mystical healing beads.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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