15 Basic Words That Are Etymological Mysteries

iStock.com/AlanSheers
iStock.com/AlanSheers

All words had to start somewhere. Through the careful work of historical linguists and lexicographers, we can usually trace a word, if not to its ultimate origin, at least pretty far back in time. We know that the word water, for example, goes back to an old Germanic source by comparing it with words from other Germanic languages: Dutch water, German Wasser, Old Icelandic vatr. We know the word fruit came to English from French because we first have evidence of its use during the period when the French Normans ruled England.

Sometimes, after much searching and analyzing, no satisfying origin explanation can be found. This is not so surprising for slangy or risqué words—if they aren’t the type of words that would be written down, it will be hard to find early sources for them—but there are a few pretty basic, run-of-the-mill words that have defied the best efforts of etymologists. As Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the progress of etymology consists as much in discovering words’ true origins as in discarding wrong and dubious conjecture. One of its bitter triumphs is the ability to say ‘origin unknown.’”

Here are 15 basic English words that have remained etymological mysteries.

1. Dog

English has the word hound, which is clearly related to other Germanic words like Hund, and the word cur, which is related to other Germanic words for growling. But the most common term is dog, which looks nothing like any other language. It seems related to similar untraceable English words pig, hog, stag, and the wig of earwig. Are they too ancient to trace? Were they originally childish nicknames or slang? Many theories have been explored, but the answer has not been settled.

2. Bad

What could more basic than bad and good? We know that good is cognate with many other languages, from Gothic to Old Saxon to Dutch, and evil is from a Germanic root, but bad is on its own. Its earliest uses referred to food that had gone bad.

3. Big

Big is a pretty basic concept, but it was not the word of choice in the Old English period (when the word was mickle or great) and only shows up from the 14th century. Was it borrowed from a Scandinavian word for a rich, powerful man? Did it come from someone’s name? The status remains “origin unknown.”

4. Girl

Maiden is from a Germanic root, and damsel is from a French one, but where does girl come from? Perhaps an old Germanic word for dress or a borrowing from another word for child. We don’t know, but it used to be used for boys too. In the 1300s and 1400s, gurles or gyrles were children of either sex, and if you wanted to specifically refer to a boy child you could say “knave girl.”

5. Boy

Knave goes back to Old English from a Germanic root, but boy only shows up in the Late Middle Ages and in its earliest uses was an insulting term for slave, rogue, or wretch. Did it come from an old French word for “person in chains”? A Dutch word meaning messenger? It’s unclear, but the OED says that for words like girl, boy, lass, and lad, “possibly most of them arose as jocular transferred uses of words that had originally a different meaning.”

6. Donkey

While the word ass can be connected to Gothic, Latin, Celtic, and Semitic languages, donkey is a mystery. Etymologically speaking, it’s a relative newcomer, first appearing in slang dictionaries in the 18th century. It might come from the adjective dun, meaning dingy brown, or the name Duncan. Apparently, it used to rhyme with monkey.

7. Bird

The more common word in Old English was fugel, which can be traced back to an old Germanic root for flying (and which gives us the current word fowl), but somehow bird won out. Bird was originally spelled brid, which gave the idea that perhaps it was related to brood, but what we know about historical sound change rules makes that unlikely.

8. Surf

Surf, as a noun for the breaking waves, first appears in the 17th century. It might be a blend of an old word suff, for the inrush of the sea, with surge. Or it could be borrowed from an Indian language.

9. Fuss

Fuss shows up in the early 1700s as a way to describe a showy, out-of-proportion commotion. It could be from an imitation of a rustling or blowing sound, another English word like force, or a word from another language.

10. Blight

Blight certainly looks like an old English word from an old Germanic source, with its gh spelling, but it’s unattested until the 17th century and seems to have begun as a term among gardeners.

11. Log

There is an Old Germanic root laeg, related to lie, that became the word for a felled tree in Old Norse, but etymologists have ruled out this source because due to sound change rules, that would have ended up pronounced low in English. It may have been borrowed from a later stage of a Scandinavian language because of the timber trade, but it could also be from an attempt to imitate the sound of something large and heavy.

12. Tantrum

That outburst of anger called a tantrum first shows up in print in 1714. No one knows where it came from, and the usual authorities don’t seem to even have made any guesses about it.

13. Toad

Toad goes all the way back to Old English, but it has no known cognates in any of the related languages.

14. Curse

Some have proposed that the old word curse might have some connection with cross, but that connection hasn’t been established. It has no known relatives in Germanic, Latin, or Celtic languages.

15. Kick

At first etymologists thought kick might come from Welsh cicio, but it turned out cicio came from English kick. The idea that it comes from an Old Norse word for “bend backwards, sink at the knees” is another possibility, but it hasn’t been generally accepted.

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

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

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Why Do We Say ‘Spill the Beans’?

This is a Greek tragedy.
This is a Greek tragedy.
anthony_taylor/iStock via Getty Images

Though superfans of The Office may claim otherwise, the phrase spill the beans did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped a massive bucket of chili at work during episode 26 of season five. In fact, people supposedly started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago.

According to Bloomsbury International, one voting method in ancient Greece involved (uncooked) beans. If you were voting yes on a certain matter, you’d place a white bean in the jar; if you were voting no, you’d use your black bean. The jar wasn’t transparent, and since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally knocked it over mid-vote was literally spilling the beans—and figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

While we don’t know for sure that the phrase spill the beans really does date all the way back to ancient times, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” at least since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest known reference of it is from a letter written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara sometime before his death in 1545 (the word spill appears in Edward Hellowes’s 1577 translation of the letter).

Writers started to pair spill with beans during the 20th century. The first known mention is from Thomas K. Holmes’s 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

In short, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were an ideal food to describe spilling secrets. As for whether you’re imagining hard, raw beans like the Greeks used or the tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, we’ll leave that up to you.

[h/t Bloomsbury International]