Plumb crooked.

Dear Word Detective: When I read the dictionary, I almost always check out the etymology of words. But I look askance at the phrase “origin unknown.” That is a very disappointing phrase, but I know that lexicographers use it to mean that the origin is not known absolutely, positively, beyond all fear of jeopardization. It does not mean there are no clues at all. So when I was wondering about the origin of “askance,” and was told it was unknown, I speculated that perhaps the Word Detective might know more about it than nothing at all. Any clues? — William Blum.

I know the feeling. Boy, do I know the feeling. Looking up the origin of an interesting word and seeing the blunt and merciless notation “origin unknown” is like getting a box of socks for your birthday. No fun at all. And there’s something in the human spirit (thank heavens) that refuses to accept that verdict. After all, every word comes from somewhere, right? There are times when that brick wall of “unknown” drives me a little bit nuts. Case in point: the word “pediddle,” US slang meaning a car with only one working headlight, has been making me crazy for about fifteen years. Forget certainty; no reputable source has even a hint of a guess as to where it came from when it first appeared in the late 1940s. Not a clue. Here’s a word that almost every teenager in America seemed to know (in the 1960s, at least), and it might as well have been imported from Mars.

You’re correct about why lexicographers are reluctant to make guesses about word origins in most dictionaries. (By the way, “jeopardization” is a fine word, though my spell checker doesn’t like it). Sometimes you’ll see a brave little “perhaps” preceding an especially plausible theory, but dictionaries quite rightly would rather frustrate readers than mislead them. A historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is, thankfully, more in the business of proposing possible sources of words (which makes their curt “origin unknown” in the case of “pediddle” even more distressing).

“Askance” first appeared in English in the 16th century with the meaning “obliquely, askew, with a side glance,” but quickly acquired its more common modern sense of “with suspicion, distrust or disapproval” (“India’s government also looks askance on Mr Obama’s wider Asian strategy,” The Economist, 10/28/10).

The OED begins its etymology note for “askance” with the usual “origin unknown,” but then, bless its daring little heart, goes on to offer a bit of speculation. Probably the most likely source of the word (or at least most often ventured in sources I’ve checked) is the Italian phrase “a schiancio,” meaning “slanting, on a slope, across,” which would certainly fit with the literal “askance” meaning “obliquely or sideways.” Another good possibility mentioned by the OED is the Old Norse “a ska,” meaning “sideways or slanted,” which in turn seems likely to be related to our English “askew,” which is very close to “askance” in meaning. There’s also the theory, which is unmentioned by the OED and strikes me as far-fetched, that “askance” somehow goes all the way back to the Latin “quasi,” meaning “as if.” As if, indeed.

The problem tracing “askance,” as the OED explains in tiny type, is that the 15th and 16th centuries produced a slew of terms in English beginning with “ask” including, in addition to “askew” and “askance,” such now-obsolete creations as “askoyne,” “askile” and “asquint.” All these terms were closely related in meaning, and, as the OED says, “seem to have influenced one another in form.” That means that the spelling of any one of these words may be a red herring and not a valid clue as to its source. It’s as if “askance,” having noticed that it was being followed, donned a fake beard and stovepipe hat and blended into a crowd of Lincoln impersonators.

Personally, I tend to favor the Old Norse “a ska” theory, if for no other reason than that it provides a solid link to “askew.” But at this point we are unlikely to ever free “askance” from that “origin unknown” label.

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