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.

Read Guy Beringer’s 1895 Essay That Coined the Term Brunch

LUNAMARINA/iStock via Getty Images
LUNAMARINA/iStock via Getty Images

In 1895, British writer Guy Beringer entreated the public to adopt a revolutionary meal that he called brunch. The word itself was, as we all know, a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, and the idea was almost exactly the same as it is today: Rise late, gather your mates, and chat the afternoon away over a feast of breakfast and lunch fare.

He detailed all the benefits of his innovation in his essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which was published in Hunter’s Weekly. In addition to presenting a compelling case for making brunch a part of one's weekend routine, Beringer also seems like the kind of person you’d want to invite to your own Sunday gathering. For one, Beringer definitely lives to eat.

“Dinner’s the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together,” Beringer wrote. “In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées.”

Brunch, therefore, is a way to put the focus back on the food. It’s also a way to justify letting your Saturday night last into the early hours of Sunday morning, since a late first meal makes waking up early on Sunday “not only unnecessary but ridiculous.” According to Beringer, brunch should begin at 12:30 p.m., so feel free to tell your early-bird friend that the father of brunch would consider their 10:00 a.m. brunch reservation an utter travesty.

To Beringer, brunch was much more conducive to socializing than the quiet, comforting solitude of an early breakfast.

“Brunch ... is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling,” he explains. “It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

And, as for the bottomless mimosas, Bloody Marys, and overall boozy nature of brunch these days, Beringer approved of that, too.

“P.S.,” he adds, “Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee.”

You can read his whole groundbreaking composition below.

"When one has reached a certain age, and the frivolities of youth have palled, one's best thoughts are turned in the channel of food. Man's first study is not man, but meals. Dinner is the climax of each day. You may have your chasse café afterwards, in the shape of theatre, music hall, or social gathering; but it is little more than a digestive. Dinner's the thing; the hour between seven and eight is worth all the rest put together. A parallel might be drawn between these sixty minutes and the Nuit de Cléopatre; but neither in length nor moral tendency would it be suitable to Hunter's Weekly. In these hurrying, worrying, and scurrying days the sweets of life are too often overlooked, and, with the sweets, the hors d'œuvre, soups, and entrées. To use a theatrical simile, there is a tendency to regard meals solely as the curtain raisers of the day's performances. Who has not whirlwind friends who rush in upon him, exclaiming, "Let's have a spree to night, old man! We won't bother about feeding; a chop or steak will about do us." What a pitiable frame of mind! Not that I am a gourmet. I hate the term. I regard a gourmet simply as a gourmand with a digestion. Excessive daintiness in regard to food is merely a form of effeminacy, and as such is to be deprecated. But there is a happy medium—everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection. On week days these conditions can without difficulty be fulfilled, but Sunday affords a problem for nice examination. All of us have experienced the purgatory of those Sabbatarian early dinners with their Christian beef and concomitant pie. Have we not eaten enough of them? I think so, and would suggest Brunch as a satisfactory substitute. The word Brunch is a corruption of breakfast and lunch, and the meal Brunch is one which combines the tea or coffee, marmalade and kindred features of the former institution with the more solid attributes of the latter. It begins between twelve and half-past and consists in the main of fish and one or two meat courses.

Apart altogether from animal considerations, the arguments in favor of Brunch are incontestable. In the first place it renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous. You get up when the world is warm, or at least, when it is not so cold. You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, heedless of that moral "last train"—the fear of the next morning's reaction. It leaves the station with your usual seat vacant, and many others also unoccupied. If Brunch became general it would be taken off altogether; the Conscience and Care Company, Limited, would run it at a loss. Their receipts on the other days would, however, be correspondingly increased, and they would be able to give their employés a much-needed holiday. The staff has become rather too obstinate and officious of late. That it must be a case of Brunch or morning church I am, of course, aware; but is any busy work-a-day man in a becomingly religious frame of mind after rising eight and nine o'clock on his only "off" morning? If he went to bed in good time the night before, well and good; but Saturday is Saturday, and will remain so. More especially from seven onwards. To a certain extent I am pleading for Brunch from selfish motives. The world would be kinder and more charitable if my brief were successful. To begin with, Brunch is a hospitable meal; breakfast is not. Eggs and bacon are adapted to solitude; they are consoling, but not exhilarating. They do not stimulate conversation. Brunch, on the contrary, is cheerful, sociable, and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow-beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week. The advantages of the suggested innovation are, in short, without number, and I submit it is fully time that the old régime of Sunday breakfast made room for the "new course" of Sunday Brunch.

P.S.—Beer and whiskey are admitted as substitutes for tea and coffee."

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Thesaurus comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. The plural of thesaurus is thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

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