Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Unknown Origin

Unknown Origin

Countless words in the language come from who-knows-where, kind of like the actions of difficult people. Here are a few words that fit in both categories.

The verb, to carp, entered English in the early 1200s probably from an Old Norse word meaning to brag. Though its present meaning may have been influenced centuries ago by the Latin word carpere, to slander, this hasn’t been proven just yet, so our modern verb carp is officially of unknown origin.

Another verb to crab, meaning to vex or irritate, showed up in English in the 1400s. Though it may have its roots in the Swedish word scrab, meaning bad-tempered, the origin of scrab is a mystery to etymologists.

Humbug, meaning trick, jest, hoax or deception, appeared in English in the 1750s & became instantly popular – nearly as popular as the numerous wild theories as to humbug’s origin. It continues to vex etymologists, as the puzzle remains unanswered, though speculation has been going on since the word’s arrival in the language,

The verb, to beef, showed up in the 1880s, meaning to complain, from the noun beef, meaning a complaint, which appeared in that same decade. Though the hypothesis has been floated that both these meanings stem from soldiers lodging complaints about the quality of the beef they were served, it remains a hypothesis, & nobody knows for sure.

Tantrum entered the language in 1714. Its source is almost universally considered unknown, though a contributor at English Language & Usage suggests possible connections to the prankish capering involved in something called the tarantula dance. This same contributor also dug up a 1675 usage (not recognized in most etymological sources) in which tantrum clearly refers to the male organ. All this goes to prove that day and night, hard-working etymologists are mining the circuitous & oddly fascinating depths of word history.

What other words do we use to describe the actions or nature of difficult people? Leave some suggestions in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.


  1. I could believe the carp/carpare connection. I didn't know they fed soldiers beef in the 1800's. If they did, maybe it was so tough they had to chew it forever, like ruminating on a problem.

    I like the word "dish". Probably comes from the idea of cattiness and cats liking a dish of cream.

  2. I'm pretty sure they meant crap and just misspelled it. One of my favorites is from a children's book, "Princess Smartypants" (I think that was it) and someone "left in huff, which is not a sort of carriage, but she was mad." I just remember how funny that was and it was something my mom would say--left in a huff.

  3. Reading this I pictured the folks who do this type of research. Such tenacity! How about curmudgeon? Love that word. Pretty funny that the male organ would be referred to as a tantrum. You have to wonder about that evolution!

  4. Hey Anne, Victoria & Christine,
    Thanks for coming by. I'll look into "dish," "huff," & "curmudgeon" in hopes of including them in a future post. And even if Victoria's misspelling theory doesn't fly for "carp," misspellings have definitely contributed to "new" words appearing in the language.