Conundrums, Puzzles, and Quizzes

By Mark Nichol

What do the three nouns in this post’s title have in common? Yes, they all refer to questions or problems to be answered or solved, but there’s a more interesting commonality: Their very existence is a conundrum, puzzle, or quiz, because they have no etymological paper trail, and no one is quite certain how they came to be.

That’s true of a surprising number of words, including flabbergast and flummox, both of which describe the feeling one has when one is puzzled. Many of these terms inhabit a linguistic ghetto reserved for words used informally or humorously; they often started out as slang, as in the case of dogie, a cowboy’s term for a calf, or the verb peter, meaning “become tired” (as in the phrase “petered out”), which originated with miners during the mid-nineteenth-century gold rush in western North America.

Other slang words with no known origin include fuddy-duddy (meaning “a conservative or old-fashioned person”), humbug (“nonsense” or “someone or something deceptive”), and persnickety (“obsessed with trivial details”); that last word is a variation of the now-obsolete form pernickety, but the etymological origin of that latter word is unknown.

More respectable orphan words include dingy (“dirty” or “shabby”), plod (“proceed slowly and heavily”), and stubborn (“difficult,” or “resistant to change or direction”).

Many other words are once removed from unknown origin; for example, huge, pivot, and trifle are three of many words borrowed into English from French even though the parentage of those words is unknown.

We may not know where these and other words come from, but most orphan words share a common quality: They tend to be vivid and vigorous words writers are encouraged to employ to produce energetic and evocative writing.

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1 Response to “Conundrums, Puzzles, and Quizzes”

  • Dale A. Wood

    In German, they have one word like these that is difficult to get any synonyms for. It is “Raetsel”, and this means: mystery, riddle, puzzle, enigma, (and several other possibilities in English).
    This means that Winston Churchill’s famous statement about the Soviet Union (a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma – or something like that) does not translate into German very well.
    The German language does have the word “Puzzle”, but that one only means what we call a “jigsaw puzzle”.
    In German, the name of the “Enigma” enciphering and deciphering machine came from the brand name of the original Dutch commercial ciphering machine that the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe adopted and then made many improvements on. The Kriegsmarine (German Navy) improved the machine even more by putting a fourth and then a fifth rotor into its mechanism.

    There is a captured German Enigma machine on display at the National Museum of Cryptography near Ft. Meade, Maryland. That is just a short distance from the National Security Agency (NSA), whose nickname is “The Puzzle Palace”.
    D.A.W.

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