Does anybody know how many words in the OED have the remark "of unknown origin"?. I read it often, but have no idea how to find an answer. I guess one would have to ask the editorial staff of the OED.

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    If, as I believe is the case, the OED is available online, I would search (Ctrl + f) "of unknown origin" in inverted commas, and the computer should say how many instances there are.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 17:50
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    A full text search returns 849 entries containing 'unknown origin' and 843 containing 'of unknown origin'.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 17:52
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    A search of the etymology sections returns 815 for OUO and 822 for UO.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 17:55
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    @Mari-LouA 'Aal' is the first and 'zythum' the last for UO in Etymology.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 17:58
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    @JEL I suggest a new idiom for "completely mysterious": "unknown from aal to zythum."
    – deadrat
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 18:54

2 Answers 2


Take a look at the 1981 study by Sterling Eisiminger, “Etymology Unknown: Toward a Master List of Words of Obscure Origin”, and his 1984 followup, “Etymology Unknown: The Crème de la Crème de la Crème”.

The author of the study wrote to Merriam Company and found that according to their dictionary there are 538 words of unknown origin. The author further goes on to cross check this list with a dozen other dictionaries (including Oxford English Dictionary) to narrow it down to 84 words that are of near mysterious origins. To quote,

They (the 84 words) are the crème de la crème of English etymological mysteries.

The papers were published in 1980s. The first paper contains the full list of the said 84 words and the motive of the author was to spur etymological research in those obscure words.

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    Evidently, the 454 words that the author removed from consideration are words that at least one respectable dictionary has offered an etymology for but that MW considers unpersuasive and not yet settled. Presumably, a significantly larger number of words exist for which different authorities have proposed different etymologies but for which MW feels confident that its etymology is correct. One example is "OK," whose etymology past MW dictionaries have treated in multiple ways, but which MW now seems quite convinced comes from "abbr. of oll korrect, facetious alter. of all correct."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 18:03

Quite literally, there are 910 entries in the OED that contain "of unknown origin". You can see this by searching "of unknown origin" in the online OED. If you expand the search to also include results that contain "unknown origin", there are 2207 entries.

Many of these entries have not been updated. Also, for most of these entries, there is something known about the etymology. For example, the page for aal (the first result) says it's from:

Hindi āl Indian mulberry tree, of unknown origin

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