We hear enough words every day to fill a small dictionary. But not all of them have a recorded history. Really????? Really. Here are some of them.
Being a grandpa is a magical experience. It hits me in so many fun ways – watching them grow, having an “adult-child” conversation, getting those amazing, unexpected hugs, rocking them to sleep, or just playing together. My favorite is watching either of them say to Jackie, “Grandma do you want to play?” then taking her by the hand on their next great adventure! Sometimes I get hit with an occasional “hey Grandpa” question that’s not so easy to answer. While reading a book together recently, we came across the word “dog”. I paused for a minute to see if it registered and then I jumped into an adult explanation of “you know, a fun loving four-legged creature, covered with hair that eats and drinks and plays and barks and runs and slurps”. Now, being a man of science and intrigue, I of course jumped online later to be sure I was right – (don’t want to alter my grandkids development). Ha! Talk about trying to solve a PIA (Pain in the @%$) Job! – I stumbled across a confounding tale (tail 😊). Seems many are not quite sure of the origin of the basic word dog. Of course, I went digging a bit further and found a whole bunch of words we use every day that are not seated in any language from the past (etymology – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology ). I picked some of my favorites to share with you, so you’ll be better prepared than I. Enjoy! And thanks to Berlitz.com, dictionary.com, mentalfloss.com, Wikipedia, and google and Wiktionary.com (a new one for me!).
FUN – longest English words
All words started somewhere. Through the careful work of historical linguists and lexicographers, we can usually trace a word, if not to its ultimate origin 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. One of their bitter triumphs is the ability to say ‘origin unknown.’”
Here are basic English words that have remained etymological mysteries.
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. Were they originally childish nicknames or slang? Many theories have been explored, but the answer has not been settled.
The Polish etymologist Piotr Gąsiorowski put forth a new proposal just a few years ago, by interpreting Old English docga as a pet form of dox/dohx ‘of a certain dark hue’ (cf. English dusk), like frocga/frogga ‘frog’ beside frox/frosc/forsc ‘id.’. That is to say, the name would originally have referred to a darker type of dog. We won’t even try to figure out “hotdog” (a food or a person showing off??)
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. Learn more HERE
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.” This adjective, c. 1300, at first found chiefly in writings from northern England and north Midlands, with a sense of “powerful, strong;” a word of obscure origin. It is possibly from a Scandinavian source (compare Norwegian dialectal bugge “great man”). Old English used micel (see much) in many of the same senses. Big came into general use c. 1400. The meaning “of great size” is from late 14c., as is that of “full-grown, grown up.” The sense of “important, influential, powerful” is from c. 1400. The meaning “haughty, inflated with pride” is from 1570s. The sense of “generous” is U.S. colloquial by 1913.
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.” The English word girl first appeared during the Middle Ages between 1250 and 1300 CE and came from the Anglo-Saxon word gerle (also spelled girle or gurle). The Anglo-Saxon word gerela meaning dress or clothing item also seems to have been used as a metonym in some sense.
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.” It’s thought the word “boy” comes from Middle English boi, boye (“boy, servant”), related to other Germanic words for boy, namely East Frisian boi (“boy, young man”) and West Frisian boai (“boy”).
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. From Middle English brid, from Old English bridd (“chick, baby bird”), of uncertain origin and relation; but its stock root is possibly onomatopoeic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onomatopoeia ). Gradually replaced fowl as the most common term starting in the 14th century.
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.
Toad goes all the way back to Old English, but it has no known cognates in any of the related languages. With unknown origin it evolved from Middle English tode, toode, tadde, tade, from Old English *tāde, a shortened variant of Old English tādie, tādiġe (“toad”).
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. For me, I get a “kick” out of writing these fund blog posts – hope you enjoy as well.
BONUS TRIVIA: Why do cats purr and humans and animals yawn? Send me you thoughts (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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