Video: Biffy, hobbledehoy, cattywumpus! Where did these words come from?

Tracing the origins of our favorite words with etymologist Anatoly Liberman

Where do words come from?
Etymologist Anatoly Liberman's book "Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone" takes readers on a journey to learn where words come from.
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You probably have a favorite word, either for its meaning or for how it sounds when you say it out loud. But do you know the origin of that word?

We asked our audience what words they were most curious about. Then, we brought them to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, author of "Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone," and a professor at the University of Minnesota.

He walked us through the origin of a few of these words — or in some cases, the possible origin.

Liberman points out, many words in the dictionary are paired with the phrase: “origin unknown.” But that doesn’t spell the end of things for etymology devotees.

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“If you know everything about everything it’s dull and becomes trivial,” he said. “But if you say that it’s all hypothetical, well, that is probably worth some discussion.”

Watch the videos below for Liberman’s intriguing, and often humorous, explanations for how some of our favorite words came to be:


“In general, such words do not appear in print too often. Think, for example, of something like poop. Why would someone want to write poop in a book? Do you expect Dickens to write poop? Or Thackeray, poop? Or Byron… Byron incidentally wouldn’t have minded.”


“All those words with pseudo Latin endings … they are very often made-up words. Words which do not exist really. They were coined and now they exist.”

Polka and polka dots

“A polka is a very merry dance, and it’s possible that polka dots were invented … to say ‘this is a very merry fabric with a very good pattern.’ They are dots, but not simply dots — polka dots! And polka dots are much better than mere dots.”


“When people say ‘well that’s a funny word, it’s known only in our family.’ It’s hard to imagine that they’re respectable entries in dictionaries. And that’s what they are.”