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.

15 Words for Gossips and Chatterboxes

Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images
Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images

We all know someone who never seems to stop talking. They’re a yammerer, a babbler, a chatterbox—but they’re also a blatherskite, a clatterfart, and a twattle-basket, as well as a “clucking magpie” and a “seller of gossip."

1. Babliaminy

Babble has been used to mean “to talk excessively” since the mid-13th century at least; the word babliaminy, coined by the English playwright Thomas Middleton, was derived from it in 1608. You can also call an incessant babbler a babelard, a bablatrice, and …

2. Babble-Merchant

… an old English slang word, literally meaning “someone who sells nonsense noise.”

3. Blatherskite

Blatherskite or bletherskate is a 17th century word, probably originating in Scotland, that combines the verb blether or blather, meaning “to talk incessant nonsense,” and skite or skate, meaning “a sudden quick movement.”

4. Blatteroon

Derived from blaterare, a Latin word meaning “to chatter” or “babble,” blatteroon or blateroon first appeared in English in the mid-1600s.

5. Bloviator

Popularized by President Warren G. Harding (who probably picked it up from local Ohio slang in the late 19th century), the word bloviate is now taken to mean “to speak verbosely or long-windedly”­—and someone who does precisely that is a bloviator.

6. Clatteran

As a verb, you can use clatter to mean “to disclose secrets,” or “to chatter or gossip,” and clatteran—alongside clattern and the next word on this list—are all derivatives of that.

7. Clatterfart

According to one Tudor Latin-English dictionary from 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “will disclose any light secret.” In other words, a gossip or a blabbermouth.

8. Clipmalabor

Clipmalabor is an old Scots word for a gossip or a chatterbox, or according to the Scottish National Dictionary, “a senseless silly talker.” It’s a corruption of the earlier Scots word slip-ma-labor, which referred to a lazy slacker or idler who would literally let their work (i.e. their labor) “slip.” Ultimately, its original meaning was probably something along the lines of “someone who gossips while they should be working.”

9. Gashelbike

Gashle is an old dialect word meaning “to twist something out of shape,” while bike or beik is an old Scots derogatory term for a person’s mouth. And if you’re twisting your mouth out of shape by incessantly talking, then you’re a gashelbike.

10. Jangler

Long before it came to mean a jingling, clinking noise, the word jangle was used to mean “to talk excessively or noisily,” or “to dispute angrily.” It’s probably derived from an old French word meaning “to jeer” or “grumble,” and so a jangler was probably originally a constant, vocal complainer as much as a chatterer.

11. Jawsmith

Dating back to the 1880s at least, the word jawsmith began life as late 19th century American slang for a chatterbox, but ultimately it came also to be used to refer to a proficient or professional talker or orator, or a vociferous leader or demagogue.

12. Languager

This word is derived, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from an old French word, langagier, meaning “to talk abundantly.”

13. Pratepie

Prate has meant “to chatter” since the 15th century, and probably originally referred to the clucking of hens and poultry. The “pie” of pratepie comes from magpie, a bird that, like many other members of the crow family including jackdaws, jays, and choughs, has long been seen as a proverbially very vocal, garrulous creature.

14. Tongue-Pad

The word tongue-pad first appeared in English in the late 1600s, and was defined in A Dictionary of the Canting Crew in 1699 as “a smooth, glib-tongued, insinuating fellow.” That meaning had changed by the time it was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1913, which defined it as “a great talker; a chatterbox.”

15. Twattle-Basket

What we would now called tittle-tattle was once also known as twittle-twattle in 16th century English, and derived from that, a twattle-basket is someone full of useless, idle chatter.

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

What Does CPR Stand For?

undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images
undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images

The life-saving technique known as CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It's a method that allows oxygenated blood to temporarily circulate throughout the body of a person whose heart has stopped. When the heart ceases beating during cardiac arrest, lungs stop receiving oxygen. Without oxygen, nerve cells start to die within minutes; it can take just four to six minutes for an oxygen-deprived person to sustain permanent brain damage or die.

The cardio part of the phrase refers to the heart, the muscular organ that pumps blood through the body's circulatory system. Pulmonary involves the lungs. People take approximately 15 to 20 breaths per minute, and with each breath you take, your lungs fill with oxygen. Resuscitation means bringing something back to consciousness, or from the brink of death.

We have two physicians, Peter Safar and James Elam, to thank for developing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the American military adopted their CPR method for reviving soldiers. In 1960, the American Heart Association integrated chest compressions, which keep the blood circulating.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, first responders, lifeguards, and some teachers are required to be certified in CPR. But because approximately 85 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home, it’s smart for the average person to know how to perform it, too. In school, you were probably taught CPR by the traditional method of giving 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute (play the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" in your head to keep the beat) and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Today, the American Heart Association recommends that average people learn hands-only CPR, which simply involves chest compressions. The organization has found that people can be reluctant to administer mouth-to-mouth CPR in an emergency because they're afraid of doing it wrong or injuring the patient. With hands-only CPR, bystanders feel less anxiety and more willingness to jump in. The AHA also notes that hands-only CPR can be just as effective in saving a life. (And any CPR is better than none at all.)

But how many people actually know CPR?

In 2018, a Cleveland Clinic survey found that 54 percent of Americans said they knew CPR, but only one in six people knew that bystander CPR requires only chest compressions. Only 11 percent of people knew the correct pace for compressions. Again, singing "Stayin' Alive" to yourself is one way to remember the pace—though being a fan of The Office can apparently help, too (as one lucky life-saver recently discovered).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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