Etymology is all about sleuthing back to the origin of words. Sadly, even the most hardworking teams of etymologists reach the end of the sleuthing line still asking the word history equivalent of, “Who’s your daddy?” When a word’s parentage is in question, it's in the dictionary is listed as “origin unknown.” This week’s post will cover just a few of the many orphans in the world of words.
Pooch was first recorded in 1924. Though a few word historians believe pooch may have some relationship to the word pouch, this American-born synonym for dog has never been officially nailed down.
In 1809 the word hike showed up in English (spelled hyke). It meant to walk vigorously. Hike has no known origin, though at the time the similarly parentless word yike carried the same meaning.
Pokey, meaning jail or prison was first recorded in 1919. Some etymologists have suggested it may have come from pogie – an 1891 term meaning poorhouse, but like pokey, pogie is of unknown origin.
Hanker – as in “I’ve got a hankerin’ for possum stew” – first showed up around 1600, & though it probably came from the Dutch word hunkeren (to hanker), hunkeren is also of unknown origin.
Arbor, arboreal, arboretum & arborist all originate in the Latin word arbor, meaning tree, & showed up in English in the 1500s, but the Latin word arbor is an etymological mystery.
Squeamish showed up in English in the mid-1400s, meaning disdainful or fastidious. Its Anglo-French parent word escoymous is of unknown origin.
Scare showed up in English in the 1590s meaning to frighten. It came from the Norse word skirra, to frighten, shy from, shun, prevent or avert. Skirra is a form of the Norse word skjarr, meaning timid, shy or afraid of. Skjarr has no known parent.
About 1600 the verb rant showed up in English, meaning both to be jovial & boisterous, & to talk bombastically. It comes from randten, a Dutch word of unknown origin meaning to talk foolishly or to rave.
I find the nearly opposite original meanings of the last two words remarkable. Fellow word-folks, were any of these word orphans worthy of your remark?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
Back in 897, the English word that applied to any kind of dog was hundas, which soon changed to hund, & later to hound. Hound reined supreme as the overall word for canines, until it was usurped by an unlikely candidate, a word with no known origin, a word which in 1050 referred to a powerful, unspecified, large breed of dog. This mysterious usurper was dog. In a mere three centuries, hound had been relegated to mean only dogs used for hunting, while dog took its place as the generic term for canines. Though the word dog takes up a full three pages in the OED, nobody is sure of its origin.
And wouldn’t you think the Latin synonym would pre-date most of the others? Not so. Canine came to English in the 1500s from Latin, through French, but acted for over three hundred years exclusively as an adjective meaning doglike. It wasn’t until 1869 that canine made its way into the world of English nouns.
Mutt offers more mystery. Though mutt first entered American English in 1901 meaning stupid or foolish person, it gained the meaning of mongrel dog by 1904. Etymologists can’t find a connection between them, but it’s assumed the first meaning may have come from the contemptuous word muttonhead, which made a brief appearance in the early 1800s referring to a dim person. This usage has sadly disappeared, though it’s such a lovely word, I’d be pleased to see it re-appear on the linguistic scene.
Oddly, the English word pooch & the Spanish word perro, are also of unknown origin. Thank heavens for cur & puppy, whose origins are clear. Puppy came to English meaning a woman’s small pet dog. It came from the Middle French word poupée, meaning doll. Though the word cur now clearly eschews the nobility of the dog in question, cur originally was attached to no such prejudice. Cur first arrived in English in the 1300s & is onomatopoeic, mirroring the growl of a dog.
Followers, what have you to say about all these dog-related mysteries? Also, are you with me in my hopes of reviving the word muttonhead?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources Merriam Webster Online, The OED & Etymonline.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.