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:

  agencies  in over 30 countries to tackle scams which originate outside the UK borders 
  crushing  heat. </p><p> Not even getting scammed over the Internet by a  criminal in Turkey 
  killing  93 people. < / p> A price fixing scam with anything but a screen saver  for consumers 
  believe  him, then those people are being scammed by Madoff today. There is no way in  the
  ambitious  protégé, Frank (Rockwell). Small scams net the pair a few hundred here, a few 
  Shui as  </p><p> ... another New Age "energy" scam with arrays of  metaphysical products from 
  movie's  poorly proofread tagline, "Who's scamming who? </p><p> In  previous films, director 
  users  must be on guard against phishing scams and other high-tech methods used by  identity 
  found was  an education in ' the art of the scam '. </p><p> Here are eight  scams I encountered 
  there  some sort of three strikes law for scamming companies? </p><p>  Caller ID Spoofing ... 
  fellow  felonious fool who smells a good scam when he stumbles upon it. He approaches 
  protect  citizens from fraudulent business scams. Meant as a piece of consumer  protection 
  tear  apart his own. </p><p> The de facto scam only emphasized that the  child's right 
  started  to think that we might have been scammed. </p><p> For a kick off,  what the hell 
  both  sides. It would no longer be about scamming the mobs of people looking for the  one 
  parliament's  auditor details expenses scams worth up to &amp; pound;125,000 a year 
  pension  plans. MEPs face end of fares scam </p><p> Nicholas Watt in  Brussels </p><p> Members 
  We  spent the day drinking our vodka and scamming hash cakes from papa. We didn't  get really 
  ?  And it's not somebody who's going to scam you. Ali was saying that he was  getting 
  way of  thinking in the West. Some of the scams, originating from Brighton Beach, like 
&amp;  mdash; they think they are being scammed < / p> </p><p> Well,  I would say the first 
, Hue had  stolen $5,000 running auction scams on Yahoo and eBay. It was child's play 
come  up with a good product (rather than scamming out a bad one), but young Spears's  music 
. </p>Health  insurance in the USA is a scam in the sense that the medical charges are 

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.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 1st 2013, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
Lovely! Thank you. Language is so everfascinating.
Thursday August 1st 2013, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Wonderful article, Orin! Got me thinking ... scam sounds like a combination of scandal and Spam, doesn't it! Likewise, dreary + trudge = trudge, and sniff + fit = snit. And I will definitely make use of your term "jester's hat syndrome" - delightful! Once again you have gotten my day off to a good start - thank you!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday August 1st 2013, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Oops, I meant dreary+ trudge = drudge!
Thursday August 1st 2013, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
I so enjoyed your writing that I will keep these two sentences as momentos:
1. "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."
2. "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."

I am reminded of a man with whom I worked in the early 1980's. He wrote computer programs for U.S. government engineering applications. As I too was self-taught (in English grammar and computer languages), I would have supported him had his resume reflected his resourcefulness. Instead, his resume listed his [engineering?] degree as coming from the non-existent "University of California, Fullerton." When I mentioned the difficulty of getting a degree from a fictional university, I found that no one else cared! Your second point is thus supported if not proved!
Thursday August 1st 2013, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
"mementos" is what I meant to write
Thursday August 1st 2013, 3:33 PM
Comment by: Joseph M. G.
I thoroughly enjoyed the article, but the citations seem to have been garbled. Can they be fixed? I think it would add to the article's usefulness if they were.
Thursday August 1st 2013, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Sophy H.
"...like a furtive immigrant seeking menial employment."

Really? I'm not typically easily offended, but this seems unnecessarily insensitive.
Thursday August 1st 2013, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Scam is truly a great word, and I'm surprised that it has so little history.

On the other hand, doesn't "drudge" have an ancient lineage? I'm thinking first of Samuel Johnson's defining a lexicographer (like himself!) as "a harmless drudge," but also the very sound of the word feels old to me, maybe a combination of like "drag" and "trudge."
Thursday August 1st 2013, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Oops, now I see Kristine F above has already made the comment I made on "drudge."
Thursday August 1st 2013, 11:43 PM
Comment by: Bob K. (Sun Lakes, AZ)
"in principal" (paragraph 2). Tsk! Tsk!

Bob Kelly

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Friday August 2nd 2013, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for comments. Joseph, the citations shouldn't appear garbled but they are fixed length excerpts, not full sentences, with some formatting material from the corpus. You can probably find comparable citations in Google News.

Michael: "drudge" is indeed an old word, as are many others in the list in paragraph 5, but their ultimate origins are still unknown or unclear.
Friday August 2nd 2013, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
'scam':
In the last century in the U.K. I heard it known as the "skim-scam", possibly referring to the word "skim" i..e.. taking what is easily removed from the top. It seems that in vernacular, idiomatic speech, and also speech directed to and/or used by children, words readily take on rhyming or rhythmical form (thus: "roly-poly", "upsy-daisy", etc.--and from 'skim': skim-scam. Then, as in Cockney habit, the universally understood part is omitted with only the 'clue' part left in:'scam'.
???
Saturday August 3rd 2013, 6:40 AM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
Am I the only one who can't figure out what CV is?
Saturday August 3rd 2013, 8:47 PM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
Please?
Saturday August 3rd 2013, 11:56 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Re: CV
The online abbreviation and acronym dictionary that I use listed 111 meanings for CV! The one we're interested in is Curriculum Vitae, which is basically a resume. Here's what Wikipedia had to add:

In the United States and Canada, a CV is used in academic circles and medical careers as a "replacement" for a résumé and is far more comprehensive; the term résumé is used for most recruitment campaigns. A CV elaborates on education, publications, and other achievements to a greater degree than a résumé, but it is often expected that professionals use a short CV that highlights the current focus of their academic lives and not necessarily their full history. It was designed to help them [the people doing the hiring, I assume] understand what people moving between countries have to offer, while overcoming linguistic barriers.

(the words in brackets are mine.]

You're welcome!
The Happy Quibbler
Sunday August 4th 2013, 3:07 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
PS (CV cont'd) By the way, the term comes from Latin and means "the course of one's life." The dictionary gives several pronunciations for vitae; I've always heard VEE-tay (in a medical context). It might be incorrect, but at least it's popular!

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