Dog, Boy, And Other Words With Unknown Origins

Words of unknown origins ...

Every word has a story to tell. Take the word companion. Did you know it comes from a Latin word that has the literal sense of “one who breaks bread with another?” Or consider the word silly. Its original sense was “blessed.” Then there are words like transfer or provide, whose roots appear all over English vocabulary, from odoriferous to clairvoyance.

But then there are words whose origins are just utterly obscure. These are often everyday words—those humble syllables we use all the time but which we don’t always stop to consider. Like dog, which is where we begin this slideshow dedicated to words of mysterious etymology.

WATCH: What Is The Origin Of The Word "Bamboozle"?


Man’s most lovable and loyal friend is actually one of English’s most perplexing mysteries.

The word dog comes from the rare Old English word docga. The more usual word back then was hund, which became hound. Fun fact: the Latin word for dog, canis, is the source of the word canine and it etymologically related to hound.

But where did this word dog come from? Theories have been offered, but etymologists are left scratching their heads.

The Spanish word for dog, perro, is also of obscure origin.


There’s just something about the names of some of the most familiar animals …

The word rabbit is also ultimately obscure. But, compared to dog, we are few hops closer to a source with rabbit.

Found in Middle English, rabbit originally meant “young rabbit, bunny,” and was probably borrowed from a French word. Etymologists point us to the Walloon robett and the dialectical Dutch robbe. But from there? It’s, well, a rabbit hole.

Walloon is a French dialect spoken by people chiefly in southern and southeastern Belgium and adjacent regions in France.

Curious about the difference between a rabbit and a hare? We’ve got you covered!


Now this one’s really packs the etymological punch.

First, the word girl—generally meaning “a female child”—originally meant any “child” or “young person,” regardless of gender.

Girl, for “child,” is recorded around 1250–1300. The deeper roots of the word, however, are uncertain.

Scholars point to Old English words like gyrela“an item of dress, apparel,” presumably of a type worn by—and then popularly associated with—a young person back in the day.


Boy oh boy, mystery loves company, apparently!

Girl‘s counterpart, boy, is also obscure. Like girl, boy is also dated to around 1250–1300.

We have some clues to the roots of boy. It might be based on the Old English Bōia, a male given name. Boy is related to the Frisian boi,
“young man,” and the German Bube, “knave, boy, lad.” (Spoken in the northern Netherlands, Frisian is the Germanic language most closely related to English.)

That German sense of “knave” is interesting because among the earliest senses of boy was “male servant.”


There isn’t a person alive that doesn’t use slang in one form or another.

Defined as “very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language,” slang is the bad boy of our vocab.

Rebelliously enough, the origin of the word slang is unruly as well. The word is first recorded around 1750–60, and was used early on for the special, secret language of the underground, often referred to as thieves’ cant.

One historic, but now rejected, theory connected slang to sling, imagining slang as the kind of language that’s tossed or thrown around. Another theory links slang to another sense of slang, meaning a “narrow strip of land,” which became associated with the territory traveled by hawkers and the speech they used.


The origin of stubborn is itself fittingly stubborn, or “unreasonably obstinate.”

We might guess stubborn is connected to stub, a “short, projecting part or remaining piece” that we can imagine is immovable and unyielding. But that just doesn’t appear to be the case.

Stubborn is recorded around 1350–1400 and took such forms as stiborn(e)styborne, and stuborn. And from there, we just don’t really know. Thanks, stubborn.


We’ve all gawked, or “stared stupidly,” at spectacles, from skyscrapers to Super Bowl halftime mishaps.

Word nerds gawk at origin of gawk—because it’s, you guessed it, something of a puzzle.

Gawk is recorded in 1775–85 in American English. It’s thought that gawk is based on an Old English word meaning “fool,” which appears in gawk hand or gallock hand, referring to the left hand. Sorry, lefties.

Another idea is that gawk is based on gaw, an old word meaning “to gaze, stare,” with that final –k a suffix in appearing in such other words as talk and stalk.


Traipse generally means “to wander aimlessly or idly while never reaching one’s goal,” as in Last night, they traipsed all over town trying to find a place still open to make copies.

Well, you’ll be doing a lot of traipsing if you try to find the origin of traipse.

The word is first evidenced around 1585–95. The word is thought to be related to the verb tramp, and one can indeed traipse, or “walk over,” something, like fields or flowers. Another theory connects traipse to trespass, which comes from French.


To nudge is “to push slightly or gently, specifically with an elbow when doing so literally, in order to get someone’s attention or to prod someone along.” A nudge is also a noun, meaning “a slight or gentle push or jog, especially with the elbow.”

Now, the origin of the word nudge could certainly stand to budge, as its origin is generally considered obscure.

We trace nudge, found by 1665–75, back to a dialectical variant of knidge or nidge, related to the Old English cnucian or cnocian, meaning to knock. Knead is a similarly hands-y, poke-y sort of word.

Sometimes, maybe a stubborn word origin just needs a little … nudge.

Click to read more
Word of the Day

Can you guess the definition?


[ en-gram ]

Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day

[ en-gram ]