Outdated Phrases We All Still Use

2 min read

Language is constantly changing and evolving to mesh with politics, pop culture and societal norms. Sometimes, though, we have phrases that have become so embedded in the cultural consciousness that we still use them, even though the literal mechanisms they describe no longer exist. Check below for eight outdated phrases we still use today.


In the 18th century, men used to belong to social clubs where gossip was discussed and connections were made. Members had to be voted in by committee, anonymously, with different colored balls. A red ball was a positive answer, while a black ball was a negative one. To be "blackballed" meant you were found wanting, cast out, and denied membership. We don’t use the physical balls anymore, but to be blackballed still means you’re getting excluded.

CC-ing on Emails

This acronym connects back to carbon copy, which is how people used to copy handwritten messages. You would write on specific paper called carbon paper, and run it through a special machine designed to work with the paper. Nowadays, that machine doesn’t exist, but the idea of making copies still lingers in email.

In the Nick of Time

During the 18th century, business owners would keep track of debts, interests and loans on “tally sticks,” with notches carved on the wood. When you arrived to pay off your debt right before the next notch was carved, you had arrived "in the nick of time."

Roll up the Window

Are you old enough to remember when cars didn’t have automatic windows? Drivers and passengers used a small crank  to move them up or down. This phrase refers to this action and is still in use — even though all newly manufactured cars feature push-button mechanisms to complete this task.

Dial a Number

Before cell phones and push-button landline phones — people used rotary phones, where you would have to spin a dial to call any number. The concept of "dialing a number" has stuck with us up to the present day.

Mad as a Hatter

Back when elaborate hats were part of everyday fashion, the people following this occupation were known as hatters. They would often use mercury in the process of felting the fur of the animals they worked, which had the unfortunate side effect of making them go insane. The technical term for this illness is "erethism," but the phrase "mad as a hatter" (which inspired an iconic Alice in Wonderland character, too) works just as well.

Burning the Midnight Oil

This is a reference to the times before electricity, when houses were lit by lamps powered by oil. It refers to staying up late and burning the oil and creating more light for yourself at midnight.

World Wide Web

This is more modern than the other terms, but it’s a reminder that everything moves and changes very quickly. When the internet was still in its infancy as a public resource, browsers were required to type "www." before each website they visited. "WWW" stood for "world wide web." Now that websites automatically populate this into the search bar, we don’t need to type it, and the phrase "world wide web" has, mostly, fallen out of fashion.

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