Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word Orphans

Word Orphans

Etymology is all about sleuthing back to the origin of words. Often, though, even the most hardworking teams of etymologists come to the end of the line still asking the word history equivalent of, “Who’s your daddy?” When a word’s parentage is in question, its word history 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.

In 1809 the word hike showed up in English (spelled hyke). It meant to walk vigorously. It 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.

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.

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: the OED, Wordnik, &  Etymonline.


  1. Pooch, pokey, and hike: proof that humanity will randomly invent words, and that they'll sometimes stick. ;)

    My little brother invented a word when he was around 4 years old: "stiggido." It was his version of a rude word, since my family discourages rudeness.

  2. Hey Rachel6,
    Stiggido indeed! An old teaching pal of mine, Mr. Dorfman, used to spend the first week of school having kids define & invent swear words, then those were the only derogatory words acceptable in his class the rwst of the year.

  3. Some of these orphaned words stuck and others didn't. I wonder if it has to do with how fun they are to say. Pokey,pooch,squeamish. Pretty fun words.

  4. Interesting about Rachel's little brother's word. I remember when my little brother invented the word "spink", meaning to flick something with your finger and thumb, something he liked to do with stuff like peas, especially when aimed at his little sister. I think the language needs the word "spink" and maybe "stiggido" too. I'm very grateful for words like pooch, pokey, and hanker. So glad they survived in spite of proper parenting.

  5. Howdy Anne & Christine,
    I agree that fun-sounding words may have more staying power. I'd like to add to "stiggido" & "spink" my family's word for a piece of soap that's small & slippery enough you can't quite hold onto it, but still won't disappear down the drain -- "squidge."