Bird, boy, girl, dog, recorder: etymology unknown

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"Five common English words we don’t know the origins of – including ‘boy’ and ‘dog’", Francesco Perono Cacciafoco*, The Conversation (7/4/24)

[*See the author's extraordinary academic profile here.]

The author begins by describing the act of naming items in the world, the etymological study of words, the comparative method, the relationship of English to Germanic and thence to the Indo-European family, and how their vocabularies are all connected.

However, the process doesn’t always work. The English lexicon includes some terms known as “proper words”, which today apparently exist only in English. Cognates for them cannot be found in any other language.

These are very simple and common words but being unique, we cannot apply the comparative method to them and therefore cannot reconstruct their origins. These “proper words” represent an exciting puzzle of the English language. Here are five examples.

1. Bird

“Bird” sounds Germanic, but doesn’t have cognates in any other Germanic language. It can be found in Old English as a rare variant of bridd, indicating a “young bird”.

Old English speakers used fugel, as in “fowl”, as a standard term for bird. Up to the 15th century, “bird” was used not only to describe a young bird, but also a young animal in general – even a fish or a child.

2. Boy

Who (or what) was, originally, a “boy”? No one knows. In the 13th century, a boie was a servant, but already in that time the provenance of the word was obscure. A century later, the term started being used to indicate a male child. The word doesn’t sound Germanic, but it’s not clear whether it was imported to England by the Normans either.

One interpretation traces back the term to an unattested vulgar Latin verb, *imboiare (in etymological notation, the asterisk indicates a word that has been reconstructed on the basis of the comparative method, rather than found in source material), possibly connected with the Latin boia, meaning yoke or collar, and with the concept of slavery.

3. Girl

Since the 14th century, gyrle was a word used to indicate a child, with no gender distinction. Despite the apparent simplicity of the term, so far nobody has been able to reconstruct its origins. Some scholars have connected it with the Old English word gierela, meaning garment, with a semantic transition presumed from “child’s apron (garment)” to, simply, “child”.

Others think that “girl” belongs to a set of words that also includes “boy”, “lass” and “lad”, which could have derived from other terms that cannot be directly linked to them any more. Whatever the truth is, the mystery of “girl” persists.

4. Dog

“Dog” comes from Old English docga, a very rare word later used in Middle English to depict a specific, strong breed – the mastiff.

In Old English, hund was the general Germanic word until the term docga replaced it almost completely in the 16th century. Now, “hound” is semantically specialised and indicates a hunting dog. So far, nobody has been able to reconstruct the etymological root of docga, and no ancient English word appears to be related to it.

“Dog” is therefore a true lexicological mystery of the English vocabulary. Probably the breed it was originally indicating became popular enough to be identified with the notion of “dog” in itself, but this doesn’t explain the provenance of the word.

The same puzzling origins are shared by other zoological terms in the English lexicon, like “pig, "stag” and “hog”, which are all etymologically unclear. Interestingly, the widespread word for “dog” in Spanish, perro, is also completely obscure in its origins.

5. Recorder

“Recorder” is something of an intruder in this list of etymological oddities, because we know its origins. It comes from the Middle French verb “recorder”, which meant to relate, repeat or recall, which in turn comes from the Latin recordārī.

Man playing flute
A Spanish medieval flute (early 14th century). Manessische Liederhandschrift 848, fol. 423v.

However, the recorder I am referring to is not the device used to record but the “straight flute”, a musical instrument. Despite its very recognisable origins, no one knows why in English, the “straight flute” – flauto dolce, in Italian, flûte à bec in French, and blockflöte in German – is called a “recorder”. It certainly doesn’t record anything.

Historical sources have been confused since its first attestations. The earliest appearance of the word is from 1388, in a list (in Latin) of musical instruments owned by the future King Henry IV. There, it’s documented as “i. fistula nomine Recordour” (“a pipe called Recordour”). This makes it look like a proper noun, with the initial character capitalised. In 15th-century England, the word “recordour”, with a lowercase initial, meant a chief legal officer of a city.

There are some theories. The sound of the recorder was compared with that produced by birds’ songs, which are repetitive and, therefore, would develop a “recording” loop – but that feels far-fetched.

In the past, I have worked on the etymologies of the words “ocarina” and “gemshorn”, and my focus is now on “recorder”. The reconstruction of the origin stories of these “proper words” could tell us a lot about our ancestors, their mindsets, and their cognitive strategies in naming what was surrounding them.

Even neologisms are typically formed from a combination of existing words or the shortening or distortion of an existing word.  They do not arise ex nihilo.


Selected readings

[h.t. Chips Mackinolty]


  1. S Frankel said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 4:21 pm

    There's a German word 'Dogge' which also means mastiff or, perhaps, hound. (You ain't nothing but a Doggehund.)

    I like to pretend that 'dog' comes from Welsh 'da gi' 'good dog' but the German word makes that impossible.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 4:45 pm

    bird < brid; I'm not a Germanicist and cannot judge the phonological
    problems (such there must be), but brid somehow to brood, breed,
    whch is semantically attractive?
    Martin Schwartz

  3. CuConnacht said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 5:50 pm

    S Frankel: I have always thought that French dogue = mastiff was a borrowing from English, and I imagine the same could be true of German Dogge.

  4. David Cameron Staples said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 6:11 pm

    Irish cú (genitive con) is also derived from *ḱwṓ, and also has a synonym, madra (from Middle Irish madrad … maybe Old Irish as well? It's seen in texts known to have been written in the Old Irish period, but known from Middle Irish transcriptions of them), where the ultimate etymology is not known.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 6:25 pm

    David Cameron Staples's remarks made me think of Cú Chulainn, "an Irish warrior hero and demigod in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore." His name "is usually translated 'Culann's hound'".

  6. David Cameron Staples said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 7:52 pm

    Irish had its share of dithematic names. In Christian times there were devotional names like Giolla Crist (servant of Christ Gilchrist), or Máel Coluim (Servant of St Columba Malcolm), and the rarer feminine Caillech Maire (Servant of Mary < caillech = "veiled person, nun").

    But even before that there were protothemes
    Donn (= "brown", possibly connected to a Cthonic deity?), eg. Donn Sleibe (Mountain's Brown),
    Dubh (= "black"), eg Dubh Darach (Oak's Black), Dubh Droma (Ridge's Black), and
    Cú (= "hound"), eg Cú Ulaidh (Hound of Ulster), Cú Locha (Hound of the Lake), Cú Mara *Hound of the Sea), Cú Connacht (Hound of Connacht).

    Cú Chulainn may have been the model on which those last were formed.

    Of course, my favorite Irish name by far was Fear gan Ainm mac Fir Dorcha: "Nameless man, son of Dark Man" (Fear gan ainm mac Fir Dorcha Mec Cochlain, d. 1538).

  7. Jenny Chu said,

    July 6, 2024 @ 9:05 pm

    But doesn't that image show a transverse flute rather than a straight flute?

    There are several Vivaldi concerti for "flautino" which has caused a lot of discussion. At that time a "flauto" was usually a recorder and a "flauto traverso" is what we would call a flute today (although it would not have had all the keys that a modern Boehm flute does). Indeed, Vivaldi also wrote pieces for the "flauto traverso", clearly marking it as such. So a flautino would most likely have been a sopranino recorder. However, they are often played on a piccolo, in other words a small/high transverse flute, and there are some who still say the pieces were indeed meant to be played on a piccolo.

    If the Italians had picked up the English word "recorder" – wherever it was that came from – the confusion could be avoided!

  8. Robert Coren said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 9:26 am

    With respect to girl = "child": There's an example of the reverse in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. A character identified as "Clown" (not of the circus type, but as fas I can tell suggesting someone foolish and/or uneducated) comes upon an abandoned baby, and among his remarks on the subject, says "Is it a boy or a child, I wonder" – indicating that <child would refer specifically to a female child.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 9:28 am

    Sorry about messing up the italicization above. The WordPress gods alone know why a commenter is unable to edit their comments.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 2:23 pm

    the Old English word gierela, meaning garment

    I read the short and interesting article (it's in open access); the word is also spelled girela, gerela, and, most often, gyrela – and this last form explains why the word is girl today and not yurl.

    I imagine the same could be true of German Dogge

    Sure; if it were native to High German, it would have ck instead of gg. Apparently, mastiffs were first bred in England.

    Precisely because of its gg (spelled cg as usual in Old English), dog most likely started as a nickname. The remaining question is a nickname based on what; one suggestion is "dusky" (phonetically entirely parallel to frosc > frocga > frog!), the other is a word that may have meant "fuzzball". The first is linked to at the bottom of this post, the second is in the first comment (by "Unknown", whose name used to be Douglas Kilday before it suddenly disappared a few years ago).

    Welsh 'da gi' 'good dog'

    To make that work, you have to have the American LOT-PALM (father-bother) merger; that's an innovation recent enough for dawg to appear in the US in places where /g/ triggered the LOT-CLOTH split.

  11. ulr said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 2:27 pm

    German Dogge is a 16th century loan from English.

  12. ~flow said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 9:16 pm

    David Marjanović said,

    > this last form explains why the word is girl today and not yurl.

    This remark made me think of G. "Göre" (f.), also "Jöre" (Berlin), meaning "child, esp. an unruly, loud one". Any connection to "girl"?

  13. Rourke Decker said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 9:44 pm

    Back in 2006, Piotr Gasiorowski published a rather ambitious exploration into the etymology of “dog,” and as far as I can tell, his paper remains the state of the art after all these years. No one seems to have been able to shed any additional light on the topic. I come back to it every couple of years because the obscurity of the etymology still tickles my brain, and I find the article fascinating.

  14. Rourke Decker said,

    July 7, 2024 @ 9:59 pm

    In one of the articles linked in the main entry, the possible connection between “Göre” and “girl” is considered but dismissed as unlikely.

  15. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 8, 2024 @ 12:00 pm

    re "dog", to quote Wiktionary: Another proposal is that it derives from Proto-West Germanic *dugan (“to be suitable”), the origin of Old English dugan (“to be good, worthy, useful”), English dow, Dutch deugen, German taugen. The theory goes that it could have been an epithet for dogs, commonly used by children, meaning "good/useful animal."

  16. Kenny said,

    July 8, 2024 @ 1:34 pm

    The claim I had heard in the past for "recorder" was that the instrument was often used to teach songs to birds – it's not just the idea that a birdsong is a loop and therefore a metaphorical "record", but rather than the instrument was actually used to do the recording, with the bird as the medium.

    It's interesting that this listicle didn't promote "pig", "stag", and "hog" to the level of individual entries, but just listed them as extras under "dog". It's suggestive that they all have the same sort of shape (single syllable with a short vowel ending in "-g"), but it would be interesting if there's any reason to think this actually indicates a similarity in formation, or just a coincidence.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:45 pm

    No one seems to have been able to shed any additional light on the topic.

    Except maybe Douglas Kilday in the comment to Piotr Gąsiorowski's post that I linked to…

    The theory goes that it could have been an epithet for dogs, commonly used by children, meaning "good/useful animal."

    …though this, in effect "good dog", is a very good idea AFAICT. A *n-stem nickname that would be *duggō in (perhaps anachronistic) Proto-Germanic form would indeed produce the attested forms in an entirely regular way.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:51 pm

    to teach songs to birds


    It's suggestive that they all have the same sort of shape (single syllable with a short vowel ending in "-g"), but it would be interesting if there's any reason to think this actually indicates a similarity in formation, or just a coincidence.

    It needs an explanation simply because Germanic *gg (like *bb and *dd and the one-word phoneme *zz) has no regular origin. It exclusively comes from analogy: either in paradigms where *ɣ alternated with *kk, or from interpretations of baby-language nicknames.

    (In English, consonant length was lost sometime around the end of the Old English period.)

  19. David Marjanović said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 5:54 pm

    Oops! I forgot the entire West Germanic consonant stretching, which did produce *bb *dd *gg (as in rib, middle, bridge) – but that required an immediately following *j, *w, *l or *r; of these, *j would have disappeared (just) before Old English was first written down, but only after causing palatalization of the resulting *gg or *kk as well as umlaut, so instead of dog we'd have **didge or perhaps **dedge now, and we don't. (Likewise with hog and, trivially, frog.)

  20. David Marjanović said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 5:56 pm

    (Hedge is an example: *haɣja > *haggja > …)

  21. maidhc said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 3:32 am

    Cú Chulainn was originally named Setanta. Setanta was going to visit Culann, but he was delayed on the way, and didn't arrive until Culann had already set out his fierce guard dog. The dog attacked Setanta (who was a young boy at this time). Setanta killed the dog and went in the house.

    Culann then complained that he had no one to guard his house at night. Setanta, to recompense Culann for killing his dog, offered to guard the house himself until one of the pups grew old enough for the job. Hence he was known as Cú Chulainn.

    I see the Chinese word 狗 Gǒu. Could that be the origin of Irish ? (Umm … via Tocharian … or something?)

  22. Peter Grubal said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 6:42 am


    You've been influenced by the abstruse speculations on Sino-European links that pervade some of the posts. If you check the etymology for Latin "canis" English "hound" you'll see that the Irish Cu is also directly descended from PIE.

  23. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 10:15 am


    Oh, good, it was beginning to get a little Starostin in here. May we also assume that "cat" has no relation to "猫" (neko) despite they both got "k" sounds in'm?

  24. Philip Anderson said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 5:55 pm

    Just because a word has no relatives now doesn’t mean it never did; it is unlikely to have been created ex nihilo.

    And note that the Welsh for ‘good dog’ isn’t ‘da gi’ but ‘ci da’, since adjectives almost always follow their noun.

  25. Pamela said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 10:49 am

    I've often wondered why English slang uses "bird" to describe a guy, a boy, a girl–now seems to me to preserve a very ancient meaning.

    "I like to pretend that 'dog' comes from Welsh 'da gi' 'good dog' but the German word makes that impossible." Well I agree the playful Welsh origin is improbable, but not because Dogge is found in medieval German–it might come from English or French.

    As for Irish cú, my great-grandmother (who was Irish) used to tell me that you could tell the Irish were stupid because they called dogs cows, and called little big.

  26. Owlmirror said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 2:22 pm

    The link to "The etymology of Old English *docga" is a large and unsightly scan of pages. A better copy can be found here:

    Although you do need access to "Indogermanische Forschungen".

  27. Frans said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 11:04 am

    @Pamela I don't believe that using the word "bird" as slang for a person is unique to English. In Dutch for example it's used to mean "perpetrator" (birds fly off quickly) as well as "strange person" (birds can have funny feathers and colors).

  28. Frans said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 11:05 am

    PS I'm referring to vogel of course, like fugel in Old English.

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