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I've heard that the word "dog" does not have cognates in any other known language (checked with etymonline ). That is, this very common words has similar forms in other languages, Germanic, Romance, or Celtic (those that have large overlap in vocabulary etymology with English).

So my question is of two kinds:

  • what are some other (common?) words that -do not- share etymology with words in any other language?

  • what are some ways to such a search automatically? (I feel like oed.com used to allow plain old test search of any entry so that one could have looked for 'unknown' or something similar). Also are there any online English word lists that have some etymological info?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I've heard that the word "dog" does not have cognates in any other known language

After your previous question on walk and talk, let's go at it again. First, etymonline (as well as other sources) note that the etymology of dog is still quite foggy. Second, the Old English docga was picked up in other languages, as noted by etymonline, giving the French dogue and the Danish and German dogge (referring to a specific breed).

Third, and most importantly, wiktionary cites the Proto-Germanic dukkōn (“power, strength, muscle”) as the most plausible origin, from which the verb dock also comes. In other languages, the Danish dukke (“doll”) and the German Docke (“small column, bundle, doll, smart girl”) derive from this same root.

As a conclusion, I don't think you can find what you are looking for. There may be words with an etymology so unclear that they might not knowingly be related to any others in known languages, but I don't think you can ever formally exclude the possibility of related cognates.

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Dude, help me out here. So my examples are not so great. Whatever my intro example is, do you have any suggestions about my actual questions? (I'm guessing one might be "be more diligent in multisource search") Any other suggestions (words or methods or reasons why the whole attempt might be misdirected)? –  Mitch Apr 19 '11 at 22:28
This answer seems excessively rude, doesn't it? –  Kosmonaut Apr 19 '11 at 23:43
@Kosmonaut: edited to be more to your taste. –  F'x Apr 20 '11 at 6:34
Thanks for rewording. Yes, my particular examples might be poor. One could take the position that every word comes from somewhere, and that I am looking for words to just study further. Or it could be that some words are born of themselves (idiosyncratically, de novo, by a single speaker or small group), and similarly I'm looking for such words. Whichever, I'm asking for electronic tools to help with creating clarity. –  Mitch Apr 20 '11 at 14:37
Dogge in Danish does not refer to a specific breed, but to large hounds in general (particularly English ones). It is also an extremely obscure word not found in modern dictionaries. The fact that other languages borrow a term doesn't mean that the term suddenly has etymological cognates, either, of course. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 2 at 11:02

I think we need to look big picture here. First, let's remember the technical definition of cognate. Here's a decent one straight from Google:

(of a word) having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root (e.g., English is, German ist, Latin est, from Indo-European esti).

Obvious candidates for 'non-cognates', then, are English neologisms: words coined by English speakers that have not been introduced by borrowing and that have not been borrowed to other languages. Unfortunately, many new words will themselves be derived from the roots or parts of pre-existing words.

For example, one might think of the English idiom "the real McCoy". But "Mc-" is actually 'a Gaelic ancestral name to mean "son of"' and reappears in tons of Scottish names. So 'McCoy' is not a 'non-cognate' in your sense.

So also with the word 'maverick'. Though it appears to be a better example, 'the surname Maverick is of Welsh origin, from Welsh mawr-rwyce, meaning "valiant hero"', according to Wiktionary.

The poem "jabberwocky" and some of the words in it might be non-cognates, but even here, many of the words are intentional combinations of preexisting words (e.g., chortle, which had no existence before, = snort + chuckle). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabberwocky

Maybe the best opportunity to find non-cognates would be to look at onomatopeic words, like 'meow'. Since these are imitative there is no reason for them to be borrowed from or shared to other languages.

Then there is another set of corner cases where the word looks to be invented in English from non-roots of other words. Slang words would often fit into this category. I am thinking also of words like 'jazz' and 'doo-wop', or Homer Simpson's 'D'oh!'. Unfortunately, these may be cognates, for the reason that they have been borrowed from English into other languages.

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Loan words are not usually considered cognates—cognates are parallel in that they are both removed from their common ancestral form. Something like okay (which is an English invention) is not a cognate with all the hundreds of ‘okay’ words it has spurred in many languages. Those could be said to be cognates of each other, since they share a common ancestor; but the English word is the ancestor and not a cognate. It's similar to how two people are cousins because they share parental siblings, but the parents are not their own children's cousins. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 2 at 11:06
Fair enough -- but loan words do share a common etymology by extension, which is what the OP sought to avoid. –  Merk Jul 2 at 19:23

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