Can you help me figure out the pop-culture origins of the term "creep"/"creeper" (referring to an unsavory character)?
March 30, 2009 10:32 PM   Subscribe

Linguistics-Filter: Can you help me figure out the pop-culture origins of the term "creep"/"creeper" (referring to an unsavory character)?

A friend and I were talking about the term "creeper" today, and we realized that this has mostly replaced the usage of "creep" among our social circles. Now we're trying to figure out how the usage of those two words started.
I know how to hunt down the traditional usage of this word, but the definition I'm working with seems to be a bit more of a pop culture thing, along with "shady" or "sketchy".
I'm wondering if anyone could point me to some resources that could be slightly more useful than Google Trends?
posted by niles to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My go-to reference for these kinds of things is the OED which lists early usage along with definitions. See below.

Creep, n.:

c. (a) A creeping fellow; a sneak. dial. Obs. (b) slang (orig. U.S.). A despicable, worthless, stupid, or tiresome person. Cf. CREEPER 1b.

a1876 E. LEIGH Gloss. Cheshire (1877) 52 A Creep.., a creeping fellow. 1886 BRIERLEY Cast upon World xviii. 218 His whole get-up so suggestive of what in those days was called a ‘creep’, that I could not help regarding him with additional loathing. 1935 Jrnl. Abnormal Psychol. XXX. 362 Creep, a worthless person. 1938 New Republic 7 Sept. 129/1 The nothing but a creep. 1951 [see CHARGE n. 3d]. 1954 WODEHOUSE Jeeves & Feudal Spirit i. 7 They were..creeps of the first water and would bore the pants off me. 1958 Spectator 9 May 588/3 A pathetic fat city creep comes making eyes at the daughter. 1960 H. PINTER Room 117, I get these creeps come in, smelling up my room. 1966 Punch 16 Feb. 241 ‘Maurice Thew School of Body-building’? That'll be that phoney creep upstairs.
posted by t0astie at 10:44 PM on March 30, 2009

Thanks for the OED entry, t0asttie. I was hoping I'd somehow be able to see it. While it's useful, I feel like the usage I'm looking for is something that's started in just the past 5 years or so.
posted by niles at 11:05 PM on March 30, 2009

I'm not sure creeper is fully-integrated into North American English yet; if someone said it around me I'd know what they meant, but it's not something I can remember hearing anyone say. My friends and I (big consumers of pop cuture, and based in Toronto, Montreal, and NYC) would call those people shady, sketchy, or sketch. Or a creep or maybe even "a creepy", but not really a creeper. Just a data point.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:07 PM on March 30, 2009

Look at "creep" as a verb, and consider the description as a certain kind of movement: stealthy, stalking, subversive even. This kind of movement describes the motives of the person who you would call a "creep".
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 11:25 PM on March 30, 2009

For what it's worth: my early-20s friends and I have also pretty much replaced 'creep' with 'creeper' and I have no idea how this happened. This is in New Jersey.
posted by lullaby at 11:37 PM on March 30, 2009

I hear "creeper" in KY all the time. Never in DC.
posted by phrontist at 12:08 AM on March 31, 2009

It's happened among high school and college students here in the upper Midwest as well. I usually hear it in the context of "Facebook creeper" -- i.e. stalking someone via News Feed.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 12:19 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm from the Northwest originally, and I know I've heard "creeper" a lot in Washington. I've taken it with me to the East Coast and, then, Southwest, too, so...I might be responsible for a little bit of the spread in those areas. Ha! "Creeper" is just more satisfying to say, somehow. More...evocative.
posted by teamparka at 12:24 AM on March 31, 2009

It seems creeper was in use as far back as 1999 if the Online Slang Dictionary is to be believed...

Definition of creeper

* Any random wierdo wondering the streets, usually alone, at night and in dark places.

Look out, creeper!

Submitted by Tyffany D., Portland, OR, USA, Nov 03 1999.

They have a (not terribly good) map of where its used, too.
posted by t0astie at 1:13 AM on March 31, 2009

Something int he last five years?

Best i can do is 10.
posted by 5imian at 1:56 AM on March 31, 2009

I've been living on Long Island for the past 5 years (Chicago before that), and I've never consciously noticed someone use the word "creeper" (referring to a creepy person) in my life. "Creep", of course, I have heard lots of times.
posted by kosmonaut at 5:38 AM on March 31, 2009

Wasn't one of the villains in Scooby-Doo called "The Creeper"?
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:47 AM on March 31, 2009

(Don't ask how I know this, but) On last season's From G's to Gents on MTV, the winner's nickname was "Creepa". This may have something to do with your recent observations.
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:17 AM on March 31, 2009

Also in the past 15 years the term, starting in urban communities, has started to connote One Who Cheats on Their Spouse.

cf TLC
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:27 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I've noticed a dramatic rise in the use of this word in the past 5 years. I never heard it once growing up, and now I hear it literally all the time. Agreeing with punchdrunkhistory that it is often used in relation to facebook.
posted by lohmannn at 7:29 AM on March 31, 2009

Words change like this all the time. 'creep' is a pretty static term, usually used as a predicate nominal, ex. 'That guy is a creep'. Whereas 'creeper' is more active, ie. A person who creeps. Also, the word may have analogized by other, similar forms such as 'stalker'.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:26 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hear "creepster," not creeper. I always thought this was from the long tradition of ending -ster prefixes, as in hipster, shadester, geekster, etc.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:38 AM on March 31, 2009

I've also noticed the word creeper more often of late. I don't have much insight into where it came from, but in my experience the usage is slightly more specific than what's been mentioned so far. I've only seen the word used by young women to refer to men, and more than just "unsavory character" I hear it to have a connotation of "potential stalker/predator." Creep could be used that way as well, but creeper seems to lack some of the broader applications of creep.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:40 AM on March 31, 2009

I've been in Brazil for four years (was living in Oklahoma prior to that) and had never heard "creeper" until last summer. It was a college student from Alabama who was teaching English. Her student was asking her to explain a list of American slang and "creep" was on the list. She said, "I've never even heard of 'creep'. The correct word is 'creeper'." Then all the English students picked it up and all these Brazilians now say "creeper", which to me sounds like a word that belongs on Gossip Girl or something.
posted by wallaby at 2:12 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it was just a way of updating the word "creep," or bringing it more into line with other things people say, by adding the -er suffix, so that it becomes like "stalker" and "loser."

For example, at my college, people started taking verbs and turning them into adjectives to describe people: "he's so talky/thinky/exercisey" so that they'd match up with words like brainy/creepy/sexy. There was no "pop-culture origin." I've found that linguistic shifts like this happen seemingly independently and simultaneously across the country in different pockets.

People like groups of words to sound the same, which is why the made-up word "commentator" (from the made-up verb "commentate") has stuck.
posted by thebazilist at 6:51 PM on March 31, 2009

IIRC here in the UK the somewhat platform shoes worn by the 'Teddy boys' of the 1950's were known as 'beetle-crushers' or 'brothel-creepers'. I suppose one could extrapolate that the person wearing them was also therefore a 'brothel-creeper'. No doubt unrelated to this recent usage, but the term always tickled me :-)
posted by stumpyolegmcnoleg at 8:04 PM on March 31, 2009

It's happened among high school and college students here in the upper Midwest as well. I usually hear it in the context of "Facebook creeper" -- i.e. stalking someone via News Feed.

As a teacher in Ohio I hear “creeper” in the context of Facebook. It’s also often used as a put-down for loners or kids who don’t belong to a clique. As in: “Did you see that total creeper stalking Melissa down the hall between fourth and fifth?”
posted by vkxmai at 5:00 PM on April 1, 2009

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