During the five or so years that I have been writing the Word of the Day feature for the Visual Thesaurus, I have noticed a pattern: certain words in English that sound and feel just right — words that are easy to remember and fun to use because their sound seems to evoke the thing they stand for so well — are often of unknown, obscure, or disputed origins. Is this just a coincidence? Read on and decide for yourself.
English borrows freely and openly from other languages and always has done, so in principle there is no need for a foreign word to slip into the mainstream without presenting credentials, like a furtive immigrant seeking menial employment. When foreign words enter English they normally carry the proper documentation, and dictionaries duly record this in etymologies, even if the word undergoes some change in pronunciation to make it easier for English speakers to get their tongues around it. This would suggest that uncredentialed English words are probably not foreign imports at all, but more likely to be native-born. So the question is, where do they come from and why is there no better record of their origins?
Let's start with a case in point: scam. It's a fantastic word that sounds just like what it is! It's short, easy to pronounce, regular in inflection, and in widespread use now as a noun and a verb, readily participating in common syntactic patterns of those two parts of speech, as the following citations show:
There have been some attempts to find credible earlier citations of scam but it truly stepped into the limelight in 1963, when it appeared as both noun and verb in a Time magazine article, in both cases in a direct quotation. The person being quoted was the late movie actor Steve McQueen who, before his stardom, spent time in the merchant marine, a boys' reform school, the criminal underworld, and a traveling carnival: places in which he would have been exposed to the vernaculars associated with each of those demimondes. Scam probably came from one of them but there is no sense in the Time article that McQueen is introducing it to English. He doesn't gloss it and neither do the magazine's editors, which suggests that by this time, scam was likely to have been understood by the reading public. So there it is: a word that most people know, but that nobody really knows the origins of.
I think the rise to respectability from obscurity achieved by scam is a likely career path for a certain kind of word: one that does its job well in a marginal speech community, where it probably has not been subject to scholarly inquiry or (before the Internet age) appeared in print. Such words may find easy employment when they are introduced to increasingly widening circles. Several other generally known one-syllable words may well have come into English in a similar way, including barf, drudge, quid, snit, tosh, and zit. All of these words are of unknown or indistinct origin, but they all have the virtue of good sound sense, and of following a sound pattern that is completely at home in English: a short vowel bookended by single consonant sounds or consonant pairs.
A related factor that may aid entrée into the mainstream lexicon of dialectal items can be illustrated by some two-syllable words. The suffix -le is old, native, versatile, and frequent in English. It is traceable to Old English (where it is usually -el) and has several uses: perhaps most frequently as a frequentative for verbs (bobble, curdle, sniffle), but also to form deverbal adjectives with a sense of "apt to" (brittle, fickle, nimble), and nouns that denote an appliance or tool (thimble, handle). For a word that would merge seamlessly into the mainstream lexicon, what better choice could it make than to don the familiar apparel of a versatile laborer and get down to work? Several two-syllable English words end in -le but behind this costume lurks the stigma of "origin unknown": the words appear in sound and spelling to follow a well-worn formula for English words but they cannot produce their pedigree, or lay claim to any of the established uses of the -le suffix: some examples of this pattern are cuddle, dawdle, kibble, skiffle, and wheedle. The first two and the last are verbs and look like they could be frequentatives — but frequentatives of what? Their stems do not support this derivation. Two other verbs about which etymologists speculate the frequentative -le suffix is at work but which lack the paper trail are dabble and ripple.
A third means by which words of uncertain birth may gain currency in English while flying below the radar of scholarly inquiry is what I call the jester's hat syndrome. It is best illustrated with some longer words. Several words of three or four syllables in English seem to announce their fancifulness just by the way they sound, and even if you've never heard them before, the first time is usually enough to fix them in your mind as words connected with nonsense, merriment, or burlesque. It would be against our instincts to take a word like bamboozle or foofaraw seriously: they lack the dignity we associate with words that look like they came from Latin (like dignity and associate, for example) and so perhaps we drop the pretense of assuming they have anything sobering to say. We welcome them in conversation as we would welcome a jester at a party, assuming that his presence is an invitation to enjoyment. No one asks the jester who invited him or where he came from, and so perhaps it is with words like this, that make themselves at home in English on the basis of conviviality before anyone bothers to investigate their backstories. Other words of unknown origin that fit this category include canoodle, codswallop, hornswoggle, and lollygag.
Perhaps the common theme to all three categories I've examined here is that if you do your job well, it doesn't really matter what's on your CV, and by the time anyone gets around to asking for your CV it has conveniently been lost.