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.