This question is prompted by a recent question on the etymology of dunsel.

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Etymonline profess ignorance of dunsel. It seems, from an answer, to have been made up by a Star Trek writer, although @Hot Licks says it was around long before Star Trek, but he gives no evidence.

Given that it is scorned by such major references, does dunsel even have an etymology?

If it does, can anyone make up a word and if it is gains some usage, does it have a etymology? For example, I made up the word marm some decades ago, which means to make like a marmot, lying in the sun on a rock in the mountains and staring into space. It achieved a certain very limited usage among a small set of backpackers. Does it have an etymology?

What are the prerequisites for a word to have an etymology ?

  • 4
    I suspect the first thing will be to define "etymology". All words have an etymology, even if it's actually unknown.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 29, 2021 at 21:44
  • 1
    I'll note that "Dunsell" is/was a place name and surname in England, and some usages appear to spell it "Dunsel". (But note that every real word came from somewhere, and has an "etymology", even if the origin isn't clear.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 29, 2021 at 21:52
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    Lots of words, especially proper nouns like Dothraki and Klingon, were made up for stories of one kind or another. That's their etymology. Others that exist or existed started somewhere somewhen in somebody's mouth; but nobody was writing them down so we don't know who where when. Etymology unknown. The only requirement is that somebody know where they came from and explain it. Of course they may be wrong, which is where arguments start. Jan 29, 2021 at 22:00
  • 1
    The first issue is 'When is wordness conferred on a candidate?' (I regret to postulate that 'marm' hasn't graduated.) This issue crops up from time to time on ELU. While appearance in a respected dictionary (perhaps better monitored than Wiktionary, the largest on word-count) is sound evidence of wordness, OED concedes that non-appearance doesn't prove non-wordness. So both questions are answered 'POB'. Jan 30, 2021 at 15:41
  • 1
    @Hot Licks You know I try to be fair when CV-ing. I'm sure there's been a previous question "When is a candidate accepted as a word/neologism?" owtte. Eventually, it's opinion-based ... the opinion of the masses. Jan 31, 2021 at 15:22

1 Answer 1


Etymology is the study of the history of words. By analogy, the history of a word is also called its etymology.

If a word exists, it has a history, however short and irrelevant it may be. In other words, every word has an etymology.

I just invented a new word in my head. Even it has an etymology: its history is that I just made it up, didn't tell anyone, and will soon forget it.

Whether a particular editor of a particular edition of a particular dictionary thought the word was important enough to include it in the dictionary is a completely different question, and whether the etymology of the word is known with enough certainty that the editor feels comfortable to present it as fact in a dictionary is yet another.

Here's an example: German has five main vowels, a, e, i, o, and u (not counting the Umlaute ä, ö, and ü). German has the words "Schlacht", "schlecht", "schlicht", and "Schlucht", accounting for four of the five vowels, but the word "Schlocht" does not exist. Also, in Germany, it is customary to have some sort of separator that you put on the conveyor belt on the checkout counter in a supermarket to signal that the next stuff on the belt belongs to the next customer. However, if you were to ask a random person, they would not know what this thing is called.

So, one evening after having a little too much too drink, an acquaintance of my parents' decided to fix what he perceived as two "holes" in the German language, and, killing two birds with one stone, declared that he names the thing nobody knows what it's called "der Schlocht".

Nobody else except him uses that word, but it still has an etymology: a bottle of Pinot Grigio. (I'm guessing. It might have been red wine.)

(Apparently, that thing is called a "Warendifferenzierungsmodul", "Warentrennstab", or "Warentrenner", but I will have forgotten that in a few days.)

  • In the US we also have that separator thingie, but I guarantee, 100%, that Warendifferenzierungsmodul will never catch on here. I'll try "the Schlocht", if you try "to marm".
    – ab2
    Jan 30, 2021 at 21:25

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