Cover image for The word detective
The word detective
Morris, Evan.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxii, 228 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
General Note:
Collection of questions and answers originally published in the author's newspaper column.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library PE1574 .M67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Audubon Library PE1574 .M67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Comic, skeptic, cyber-sleuth, syndicated columnist, and inspired wordsmith, Evan Morris is the Word Detective. He's an etymologist with a sense of humor, a lexicographer with an attitude. Morris's unique approach to language and his distinctive brand of absurdity have found a loyal following of readers curious about everything from soup to nuts--and that means the origins of the phrase soup to nuts, and thousands more words and phrases. This book is a collection of 150 of Morris's language columns, which appear in newspapers throughout the country and on his popular Web site. A clueless husband writes the WORD DETECTIVE to ask if his wife has insulted him by calling him gormless. Coworkers write to settle a watercooler dispute about the logic of feed a cold, starve a fever. The Word Detective snoops around, follows the leads, and uncovers the answers. The book is chock-full of fascinating lore about the origins and uses of the English language and includes special sections exploring groups of words such as euphemisms, eponyms, and onomatopoeic forms. Funny and offbeat, clever and curmudgeonly, irreverent and irritable, this detective is for all of us who appreciate a dash of wit with our words.

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

Here's a delightful romp through the English language that will remind word buffs of Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue and William Safire's collections of his "On Language" columns. Morris, the son of lexicographer William Morris, took over his father's syndicated newspaper column, "Words, Wit and Wisdom," in the early 1990s; in 1996, he changed the name of the column to "The Word Detective." This book is a collection of those columns, and, oh boy, is it fun! Tackling obscure words like jumbi (a ghost) and little-known phrases such as "happy as a sandboy" (a British expression referring to alcohol consumption), as well as more common items like catch-22 and hamburger, Morris not only solves his word mysteries but displays his laugh-out-loud sense of humor at full throttle. (Fans of humorist Dave Barry's "Mr. Language Person" will be on very familiar ground here, except that Morris isn't making anything up.) Morris does what few writers on language can manage: he informs and entertains at the same time. --David Pitt



AMOK Q: A magazine article I read recently described a baby-sitter as being unfit because she allowed the children in her care to "run amuck," which immediately made me wonder about that phrase. Any clues? --Doris S., Toledo, Ohio. Do you mean "any clues to where the children went"? I'd check the coat closet, personally. If they're not there, they're probably in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. I used to be very good at eluding my baby-sitter for hours at a time, or at least until she forgot about my feeding an entire jar of grape jam to the dog. I think the reason I don't remember any of my baby-sitters very clearly is probably that I met each of them only once. Still, as trying as I may have been to my baby-sitters, I never actually ran amuck in the original sense of the word, and I doubt that the children in that magazine article did, either. Amuck, more properly spelled amok, comes from the Malay word amok, meaning "a state of murderous frenzy." In English, the word amok dates back to the sixteenth century and the first contacts between Europeans and the inhabitants of Malaysia. The standard story of the word is that the Malays were (as one European account of the period put it) "susceptible to bouts of depression and drug use," which then led them to engage in murderous rampages. Anyone in the path of the person running amok, it was said, was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris. One need not be overly politically correct to suspect that accounts of the amok phenomenon reported by Europeans may have been somewhat melodramatic and culturally biased. Nonetheless, amok entered English with the general meaning of "murderous frenzy" and was usually applied to animals, such as elephants, who attacked humans in the course of a rampage. As is often the case, however, the meaning of the phrase in English was gradually diluted over the next few centuries until running amok became a metaphor used to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect, and not necessarily chopping folks up. Still, you'll never catch me baby-sitting. *** ARMED TO THE TEETH Q: Could you explain armed to the teeth, please? I remember reading this expression in a translation of the Odyssey. Does it refer to some form of armor that ran all the way to the gum and chopper region? Or does it mean that a warrior was so well fortified with weapons that he also held a knife or something in his mouth? --Paul S., St. Louis, Missouri. Until I did some research, I had always assumed that armed to the teeth had something to do with the knife-in-mouth school of personal armament. Like many folks, I have a dim childhood memory, gleaned from old pirate movies, of buccaneers swinging aboard a captured ship, brandishing blunderbusses in both hands, cutlasses clenched in their teeth. I don't think I can adequately convey how thrillingly illicit those images seemed to me at the time, but keep in mind that I was living in an age when one of the worst things a child could do was to run while holding a pair of scissors. Swinging on a rope while holding a sword in your mouth? Cool! No wonder those guys all wore eye patches. But it turns out that armed to the teeth is just one of many uses of the phrase to the teeth, meaning "very fully" or "completely." To the teeth has been used as an equivalent for the popular up to here (with hand signal indicating the neck region) for quite a long time, since around the fourteenth century. You could, it seems, just as well be fed to the teeth, if you had eaten a large meal, or even, if sufficiently exasperated, be fed up to the teeth (at which point you might arm yourself to the teeth, I suppose). The first modern use of armed to the teeth was in an 1849 speech by the English industrialist and statesman Richard Cobden, who, speaking of his nation's defense budget, asked, "Is there any reason why we should be armed to the teeth?" He obviously hadn't been watching enough pirate movies. *** BAR Q: My girlfriend asked me what I thought were the origins of the terms bar exam and passing the bar. After looking up bar to find that one definition of the word is "the railing in a courtroom that encloses the place about the judge where prisoners are stationed or where the business of the court is transacted in civil cases," I surmised that passing the bar referred to entering the court of law or, rather, being considered ?t to enter the court of law by passing a bar examination. She, of course, disagrees, and she insists that this bar has something to do with raising the bar, that is, to allow entrance. Can you help? --Andrew W., via the Internet. Honestly, I don't know what gets into you folks sometimes. Any fan of Davy Crockett knows that bar is simply a backwoods form of bear. Back when our country was young and sensible, anyone wishing to become a lawyer was first required to wrestle a fierce grizzly bear. In the unlikely event that the prospective lawyer won the match, he had "passed the bar" and was admitted to practice law (and was, incidentally, often subsequently sued by the bear for infliction of emotional damage). This was such a sensible system that as of 1846 there were only three lawyers in the entire United States, and they kept pretty much to themselves. Oh, all right, that's not exactly true (although I'd like to point out that it's never too late to institute such a system). Your supposition, that the bar in question is the wooden one traditionally separating the lawyers, judge, and other interested parties from the riffraff in a courtroom, is correct. Bar has been used in the metaphorical sense since sixteenth-century England, when a lawyer admitted to practice before the court was said to have been called to the bar. This same bar, by the way, underlies the word barrister, which is what the British call lawyers who appear in court (as opposed to solicitors, who merely advise clients). Incidentally, I believe your girlfriend may be a bit confused about what raise the bar means. The phrase actually comes from high jumping, where raising the bar makes things harder, not easier. *** BIG APPLE Q: Why is New York City called the Big Apple? --Adele K., via the Internet. I'd call this question one of the hardy perennials of the word-origin biz, except that it's really more of a monthly. What's especially interesting is that a majority of folks asking about Big Apple do not live in New York City, which is virtually never referred to as the Big Apple by its residents. I guess this proves that advertising works. The term Big Apple was adopted in 1971 as the theme of an official advertising campaign aimed at luring tourists back to New York City. The ad campaign tried to recast New York, then generally perceived as noisy, dirty, and dangerous, in a more positive light by stressing the city's excitement and glamour. As to the origin of the term Big Apple itself, the prevailing wisdom for many years was that it was used in the 1930s, by jazz musicians in particular, but that no one knew where it first arose or how it became a synonym for New York City. Fortunately, Professor Gerald Cohen of the University of Missouri did some serious digging and uncovered use of the term Big Apple in the 1920s by a newspaper writer named John Fitzgerald, who wrote a horse-racing column (called "Around the Big Apple") for the New York Morning Telegraph. Fitzgerald's use of the term thus predated the jazzmen's Big Apple by about a decade. It was still unclear where Fitzgerald got Big Apple, however, until Barry Popik, a remarkably persistent New York City slang historian, took up the search. Popik discovered that in 1924 Fitzgerald had written that he first heard the term from stablehands in New Orleans, who referred to New York racetracks as the Big Apple--the goal of every trainer and jockey in the horse-racing world. Armed with the true story of Big Apple (and dogged determination), Popik spent the next four years trying to convince the New York City government to officially recognize Fitzpatrick as the popularizer of Big Apple. In February 1997 he finally succeeded, and the corner of West 54th Street and Broadway, where John Fitzgerald lived for nearly thirty years, is now officially known as Big Apple Corner. Use of this excerpt from THE WORD DETECTIVE may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright (c) 2000 by Evan Morris. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Word Detective by Evan Morris All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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