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.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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