Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.

 

Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!

 

 

 

Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.

 

Archives 2006 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.

 

If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.

 

 

 

 

Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

 

TWD RSS feeds

August 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Well, there you go. Sic transit gloria Aestatis. As Groucho Marx is said to have said, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” Speaking of which, what the hell have they done to bananas? I know I’m late to the party on this, but when I was a kid bananas were a staple of my diet, along with baloney sandwiches on white bread with yellow mustard. I ate baloney sandwiches for lunch literally every school day until I was 14; according to my mother, I insisted on it. Eventually we must have run out of baloney, because one day I woke up in some tattered Dickensian academy where they expected us to eat huge meals of roast beef and potatoes while wearing jackets and ties. Not my style, though the Boston Cream pie was nice. Anyway, bananas today are truly awful. They used to be smooth and slightly sticky with a strong pure banana flavor. Now they taste like cardboard and have a weird, grainy texture like damp styrofoam. Don’t get me started on cantaloupe.

Elsewhere in the news, we went for a walk down our road about a month ago, just as it was getting dark. This road is a typical rural two-lane blacktop, fairly level and straight, houses separated by huge corn and soybean fields, and without a lot of traffic, so it’s a good place to walk for exercise. I have a hard time walking around in stores without a cane or cart to lean on, but I do OK in a straight line. I now walk more slowly than I have ever seen anyone walk, but I plan to keep doing it as long as I can. Sometimes I wonder how I’d get around if we still lived in Manhattan. I used to love to walk home from work (Midtown East 50s to Upper West Side) in all kinds of weather. I could probably manage on the sidewalks, but I can’t imagine trying to cross the street. Anyway, walking is my best bet to be able to keep walking and avoid a wheelchair.

So we were passing some of the houses down toward the state highway when a gang of three cats suddenly appeared next to us from nowhere. Very weird. They clustered around my feet, meowing, while Kathy, who was about 30 feet from me, trudged on. I shooed them away as best I could and kept going. Last I saw of them they were running into the yard of a nearby house. A few minutes later, however, as it became completely dark and we were nearly at our own driveway, I heard the patter of feet behind me and one of the cats — just one — came racing up next to me. She (as it turned out) must have run for quite a ways at top speed to catch up. I noticed she was wearing a braided cloth collar and didn’t seem at all feral, and she was purring so loudly I could hear it from six feet away. But the last thing we need is another cat, and this one looked like it belonged to someone, so I did my best to shoo it away, clapping my hands and shouting, “Go home!” in a stern voice. It didn’t work. At all. She moved sideways a bit but kept pace with us, and when we reached our driveway she marched right up like she was going home after a nice walk. So, long story short, she’s now living on our front porch while we try to find her owners (yeah, checked PetFBI.com, vet checked for a chip, yadda yadda). It makes me sad because she’s such a nice, placid lap cat. Purrs constantly, maybe 4- 5 yrs old. I’m afraid somebody died or moved and she just got booted out of a car. That happens a lot out here.

This looks very cool. It’s a $49 TiVo DVR that lets you schedule recordings of free over-the-air (broadcast) TV programs, as well as stuff on Netflix Streaming, Hulu Plus, etc. The digital OTA sub-channel market is exploding, primarily due to soaring cable and satellite charges in an economy where many people are experiencing serious financial hardship. We get five broadcast channels where we are, with a total of six sub-channels, most of which show stuff  like either Bachelor Father and Mister Ed or old movies you’ve never heard of — lotta minor noir, which is cool. I could definitely do without 99% of cable/satellite TV. I’d miss Al Jazeera, which does some very good real reporting, although in my darker moments I’ve taken to calling it The Misery Channel. But CNN is a bad joke, MSNBC & Fox are flat-out unwatchable, and that leaves what … House Hunters? It’s moot anyway, because we have to cancel the satellite next week.

As usual, thanks to all the wonderful people who support this little circus with subscriptions and donations. If you can spare a few doubloons, please consider subscribing. And yes, it mortifies me to say that every month. But your support literally keeps the lights on around here.

And now, on with the show….

Well-to-do

I wanna vote for someone who knows the percentage a Coinstar machine takes. Or even what it is.

Dear Word Detective:  During a conversation with my wife the other day, she mentioned that someone was from a “well-to-do” family. That is a phrase I have heard and used all my life without much thought.  But it suddenly struck me that, even though I know the phrase means someone who is upper class or wealthy, the phrase itself is pretty much nonsensical. How did this come to mean what it does?  Curiouser and curiouser. — Chip Taylor.

Indeed. What I find interesting is that one hears “well-to-do” less frequently today than when I was a kid, which is odd since the rich are both richer and more numerous now. It’s far more common for people to avoid “rich,” “wealthy,” “well-to-do” and similar quantitative adjectives in favor of job descriptions (“hedge fund manager,” “investment banker,” “venture capitalist,” etc.) that leave no doubt that said person is sitting on a mountain of money. Anyone remember the old TV show “The Millionaire,” in which the mysterious and fabulously wealthy John Beresford Tipton gave one million dollars to some poor schnook every week (usually ruining the schnook’s life)? There are, at the moment, more than eight million millionaires in the US. No wonder nobody bothers showing reruns of “The Millionaire.”

“Well-to-do” is one of a number of adjectival phrases, some dating to the 16th or 17th centuries meaning “possessing enough wealth to ensure a comfortable life.” “Well-off” is still in frequent use, while others such as “well in cash,” “well in the world,” “well to pass” and “well to live” have faded away. “Well-to-do” is a fairly recent arrival, first appearing in the early 19th century (along with its fuller form “well to do in the world”).

“Well,” all by itself, is an interesting word. As a verb, it means “to spring, rise to the surface, gush, or flow,” as tears might “well” in the eyes of guests at a wedding. As a noun, it generally means a deep hole in the ground from which water, oil, etc., are pumped or flow. Both these forms come from a Germanic root carrying the sense of “bubble up.”

The adjective “well,” however, is unrelated to those “wells.” Meaning generally “sufficient, satisfactory, reasonable, in good condition or health,” this “well” comes from the same old Germanic roots as the verb “to will,” and originally meant “appropriate; in keeping with proper standards” (i.e., “as society would will it”). “Well” has many senses and uses, but all of them involve the general sense of a thing, person or action being suitable, appropriate, completed, prosperous, enlightened, happy, secure and similar qualities. “Well” as an adjective is a very positive word.

One of the senses of “well” in the early 15th century was “in a state of prosperity; affluent,” frequently amplified in phrases with specifics, such “well in cash” or “well in goods.” A more delicate estimation might be “well off,” still very much in use as a euphemism for “loaded,” the “off” being the same sense of the word (roughly meaning “situated”) used in “better off” and “worse off.” A similar sense is filled by “to do” in “well-to-do.” One of the uses of the verb “to do” is to express condition or habitual state (as in “How are you doing?”). In “well-to-do,” the “to-do” indicates that the person’s situation is comfortable and sufficiently secure to continue indefinitely.

To “take”

I’ll take Confounding Words for $100, Alex.

Dear Word Detective: Can you enlighten me as to the origin of the phrase “it didn’t take?”  What exactly did it not take? The cake? The bait? The day off? — KT.

That’s a darn good question, but a tricky one to answer. “It didn’t take” and similar uses have become standard idioms in English, and idioms are often hard to explain because they usually “mean” more than just the literal meanings of their parts. In this case, the sense of “take” in question is just one of dozens of senses of the verb “to take,” and the connection of many of them to the original meaning of the word is tenuous, convoluted, and possibly impossible to explain. In explaining a phrase such as “it didn’t take,” often the best we can do is to explain what the phrase means, not precisely how “take” itself came to mean what it means in that context. But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

“Take” first appeared in Old English as “tacan,” from the Old Norse “taka,” meaning “to grasp, seize, take hold of,” based on old Germanic roots meaning “touch.” This general sense of “grasp” evolved into two primary senses of “take,” that of “to grasp, seize, or appropriate something” and “to receive or accept something given.” The first sense gives us such uses as “take a bite of food,” “take a break,” “take a look” and so on. The second is found in “take punishment,” “take advice,” “take in” shocking news, and similar uses. These two categories are, however, only general and many uses of “take” are too idiomatic to make literal sense if analyzed closely. Such uses as “Your dog takes to me,” “We might take him by surprise,” or “Don’t take your anger out on that clerk” don’t have any simple explanation based on other meanings of “take.”

In speaking of something “taking” in such uses as “It didn’t take,” we generally mean that the thing, plan or act did not have the intended effect or had no lasting effect (“Bob was warned about being late several times, but it didn’t take and he was fired.”). This sense of “take” dates back to the early 17th century and has been in common use since then (“She was married…. The year she came out. But it didn’t take.” Budd Schulberg, 1941). So to say something “didn’t take” means that it didn’t work and won’t last.

This use of “take” seems to be a figurative derivative of the use of “take,” starting in the 15th century, to describe the process of a seed or planting putting down roots and beginning to grow, in a sense “grasping” the earth (“We planted a thousand cedars of Lebanon, with shoots 6 in. high, and we have no doubt that they will take well.” 1892). This seems about as close to the “grasp, seize” original meaning of “take” as we can get. “Take” has also been used, since the 19th century, to mean a successful skin or tissue graft or transplant (“The transplanted pieces of skin… were found to have ‘taken’ remarkably well.” Lancet, 1875).