Everything has a beginning and for a lot of things they’re pretty easy to figure out. You can look at the first film by a certain director or actor, the first book by a writer, the first appearance of your favorite fictional character. It’s usually very cut and dry. That said, every so often a thing rises to popularity and then you find out later it’s a lot older than you at first imagined and the origins can be rather unexpected.
10. The Soup Nazi was Referenced Before Seinfeld in Sleepless in Seattle
Seinfeld was known for having a lot of really quirky and interesting supporting characters who stood out as much or even more than the main cast. Some only appeared in one or two episodes but are still referenced to this day, years after the show went off the air. Arguably the most famous of all of these characters was the Soup Nazi.
On the show, the Soup Nazi runs a soup restaurant with an intolerant iron fist. Customers who refuse to adhere to the rules are banished for life, hence the joke title he’s given. But the character was based on a real man named Ali Yagenah.
Yagenah ran a famous soup restaurant in Manhattan and he was known to have a temper. The man’s nickname in real life was the Soup Terrorist. As a character, he was actually referenced two years before Seinfeld in the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie Sleepless in Seattle. Though it’s brief, Ryan’s character talks about wanting to do a story on a guy in New York who makes the best soup but is also the meanest man in America. The writer of the movie, Nora Ephron, is from New York and Yagenah had been profiled in the New Yorker a few years earlier.
9. The First F-Word Was Used in Text Back in the 1300s
The F word is one of the most enduring words in the English language and to this day it’s still considered taboo by many, despite the fact it’s over 700 years old now. Few words have that kind of longevity when most of “polite” society has to refer to it by the first letter.
The first written record of the f word comes to us from the year 1310 when it was transcribed as part of a court case. The previous earliest reference was much later, in 1475. It’s also 100% not what you’d expect, either. There was a man called Roger F-bythenavele who, and this is just speculation, may have been a guy who was really bad at having sex or just someone known to be a dimwit who got saddled with a creative nickname so well known they put it in legal documents. Either way, it’s kind of amazing.
He’s referenced 7 times in the document using that name. The case was not relevant to his name and seems to mostly be about his failure to appear for an earlier case though the nature of that isn’t mentioned.
8. Nerd Was First Used by Dr. Seuss
The word “nerd” is so ubiquitous these days that businesses employ it to advertise things like computer services. It rose to real prominence in everyday usage in the 1970s and likely hit its peak in the ’80s with films like Revenge of the Nerds. By that point the meaning of the word, as someone who is unattractive and socially awkward was pretty widely understood.
Nerd didn’t evolve on schoolyards with bullies, however, it came from one of the world’s most well known authors. Dr. Seuss first coined the word back in 1950, at least as far as print usage is concerned. There it was featured in his work “If I Ran a Zoo” and in context it’s just a nonsense word that has no relation to the current meaning.
It’s been mentioned that a 1951 Newsweek article also makes reference to teens calling each other nerds, and that the term has come to replace “drip” or “square” as an insult, so it’s likely that Suess didn’t pull the word out of the ether, but he was the first to put it to paper.
7. Romans Used Yin Yang Symbolism Before China
The Ying Yang symbol is one that is strongly tied to east Asian culture. You can find it all throughout the Western world as a kind of pseudo-spiritual symbol used in jewelry and art that generally represents balance and harmony. The concept of what the symbol represents dates back thousands of years in China but the iconography does not. In fact, it first appeared in Rome about 700 years before it did in China.
The symbol was used in some Roman shield patterns but has nothing to do with the meaning of the yin yang or Taoism in general, as none of that would have been known to the Romans at the time. Instead, it was a case of coincidence or, less likely, someone saw the design from the Roman shields and felt it well represented the idea and adapted it to their own needs. If the symbol did have any deeper meaning for the Romans, it has since been lost to history.
6. Harry Potter Was a Character in a Fantasy Story Years Before JK Rowling’s Books
Harry Potter is one of the biggest entertainment franchises in history and the movies, including the Fantastic Beasts spinoffs, have grossed over $9 billion so far. The books have made another $7.7 billion.
If you were to describe the story in very general and vague terms, you might say it’s a fantasy series about someone named Harry Potter who lives in a world with trolls and goblins and such. And, based on that limited description, you’d also be describing the 1986 film Troll, which vastly predates the more popular franchise. Filmmaker John Buechler would later claim he invented Harry Potter, the stories had a lot of similarities, and that JK Rowling ripped him off. He even planned to release a remake/sequel called Troll: The Rise of Harry Potter Jr., which never came to fruition after Buechler died.
Rowling and the studio behind the well known Potter films disagreed that they’d stolen anything and, if you’ve seen both you’d be hard pressed to believe the boy wizard was inspired by the ’80s B-Movie, but the fact remains it genuinely was a story about a magical world and a boy named Harry Potter, many years before the more well known version.
5. Donald Duck’s Sister Was Created in the 30s
Disney has a stable of well known characters that date back decades but some of the originals and most iconic include Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. Donald had his own corner of the Disney-verse featuring three nephews named Huey, Dewey, and Louie, which implied that — somewhere — Donald had a sister.
In 2017, the DuckTales cartoon which featured the three nephews and Donald’s uncle Scrooge McDuck got a reboot and they finally decided to give the boys a mother. She’s shown in painting in an episode and referred to as mom and then, in 2019, the character Della Duck debuts, voiced by Paget Brewster.
But the boys did have a mother long before this; it’s just that Disney never did anything with her. The first reference to their mother, who’s name was Dumbella at the time, dates back to 1937. She made an appearance later in a Dutch comic in which the triplets are named Kwik, Kwek and Kwak, but was never seen anywhere else until the recent cartoon.
4. The Ring of Invisibility Was First Used by Plato
Arguably the most important plot device in the Lord of the Rings books by Tolkien is the One Ring itself which is, also arguably, its own character despite not being a living being. It has an active influence over events and without it the plot cannot move forward. It’s an essential element, and it’s also very heavily borrowed from Plato. This was very much on purpose.
Tolkien would have been familiar with Plato’s Republic and the Ring of Gyges. In Plato’s tale, a shepherd receives a magical ring that makes him invisible. Using this ring he kills the king and takes over the realm. It was Plato’s point that invisibility and anonymity are essential keys to corruption and the difference between a just and an unjust person was only someone’s ability to be invisible and anonymous. Take what you will from that proposition as it relates to the internet.
The parallels to Lord of the Rings are clear. The One Ring absolutely corrupts everyone who comes in contact with it. Only the simple, innocent Hobbits can withstand its sway long enough to get it to Mt. Doom and even then, Frodo loses himself in the critical moment.
3. The NY Times First Mentioned Hitler Back in 1922
The history of World War II has been covered extensively and from countless angles. Many people in the aftermath, and still today, wanted to know how anything like that could have happened. And, more specifically, how could Hitler have happened.
Stories about the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the deaths of millions of Jews were making headlines in 1942. The war itself had started just three years earlier, and Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.
Part of the problem was what the world knew about him before things escalated to an all out world war. The New York Times wrote about Hitler for the first time in 1922. He had only been in the German political world since 1919 at that time and became the leader of the Nazi party in 1921. Outside of Germany he was still relatively unknown.
The Times piece notes Hitler was a good orator and also made a lot of anti-Semitic speeches which the author dismissed saying that “well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers.”
2. Palpatine Was Outed as the Emperor Before the Original Star Wars Film Was Even Released
The big reveal in the original Star Wars trilogy is the identity of Darth Vader. The Emperor’s identity is never really contemplated at all, he’s just the Emperor. But he never really has a name at that time, either. No one calls him Palpatine in that original trilogy and the actor, Ian McDiarmid, did have some serious makeup on to make him look creepy.
Fast forward to the prequel trilogy in the 1990s and Chancellor Palpatine is a full-fledged character played, again, by a much older Ian McDiarmid. He’s initially portrayed as good, and slowly suspicion is cast over him until finally there’s a scene in which Yoda and Mace Windu discuss the Sith master and apprentice relationship and the movie just comes out and shows you Palpatine.
Some fans would have known ahead that Palpatine was the Emperor just because they paid attention to the actors or they even recognized the voice. But for many, this was a surprise reveal. However, the actual reveal came well before the prequel trilogy and, weirdly, before the original trilogy. Palpatine’s first appearance, and the revelation that he’s the Emperor, was months before the original Star Wars movie came out in Alan Dean Foster’s novel Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.
1. “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” Predates the Bible
There are a lot of sayings, proverbs and aphorisms that get quoted all the time to dispense wisdom or at least a sort of cliched version of it. The popular saying “God helps those who helps themselves” has been around for centuries and means, in general, that you have your own power and agency to do things in your own life.
A number of people believe the saying comes from the Bible, possibly even quoting Jesus. According to one pastor, a survey of American Christians determined 68% of them believe that saying has a Biblical origin. In truth, the saying is actually much older.
You can trace “God helps those who help themselves” back to Aesop’s Fables, where you can find it in the tale called “Hercules and the Wagoner.” There it’s sometimes translated as “Heaven helps those who help themselves” and was written around 550 BC, so quite some time before Jesus may have ever uttered any similar words.