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Monkey do.

Dear Word Detective:  What is a meme?  — Sally Purdy.

Oh, what isn’t a meme?  My spellchecker may not recognize the word (way to go, Open Office), but you can’t spend more than ten minutes on the internet before you’re knee-deep in “memes,” or what are labeled as such by the other netizens.  By the way, whatever became of “netizen”?  Of all the dippy coinages cooked up in the mid-1990s “internet evangelism” dementia, “netizen” (supposedly a combination of “internet” and “citizen”), meaning someone who, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it delicately, “uses the Internet, especially habitually,” was among the lamest (and quite possibly the most vacuously self-important).  I always preferred “mouse potato” myself.

I was kidding about the encyclopedic and omnivorous scope of the term “meme,” but the definition of the term offered by the OED certainly covers a lot of territory:  “A cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (especially imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.”  In practical terms, “memes” include ideas, rumors, catch phrases (such as the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that”), particular fashions (tattoos, baseball hats worn backwards), tunes or snatches of music (e.g., the old Dragnet “dum dee-DUM-dum”), urban legends (such as “Eskimos have 1000 words for snow”), traditional remedies (“beefsteak cures a black eye”), bizarre legal myths (“undercover cops are not allowed to deny they’re cops”), superstitions, dietary biases (e.g., pork as “unclean,” Brussels sprouts as “good for you”), more rumors, fads, prejudices, things we all know are true but aren’t, and LOLcats.  Just about everything that makes life fun, in other words.

The key to a “meme,” what separates a “meme” from a simple personal quirk, preference or fixation, lies in its transmission between people.  “Memeticists,” who are apparently paid to study the phenomenon of “memes,” hold that “memes” propagate through human society in roughly the same way that genetic traits and mutations spread.  “Memes” can, in this view, be inherited, transmitted, modified, and culled by natural selection just like hair color or height.

“Meme” is one of those rare new words that were definitely coined by an identifiable person, in this case by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene,” published in 1976.  Dawkins explained that he derived “meme” by shortening the Greek word  “mimeme,” meaning “that which is imitated,” and even stipulated that his new word should rhyme with “cream.”  Hmm.  I suddenly have the irresistible urge to start an internet rumor that the proper pronunciation of “meme” is “mim-MAY.”

So, in practical terms, a “meme” is something that you notice two or more unrelated people doing, saying, singing, dancing, wearing, eating or believing.  Pass it on.


Leg in the door.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the slang term “gams” for women’s legs originate? — B.D.

That’s a good question, and it just gave me an idea (oh no, here he goes again).  If we can have a “Talk Like a Pirate Day” every September 19th (and apparently we can), why can’t we have a “Talk Like a Gumshoe Day” every year?  It would be much more fun than just peppering every sentence with “Avast!” and “Arrgh!”  We could use words like “gat” and “stiff” and “heater” and “patsy”!  We could wear trench coats and fedoras!  What’s not to like?

There are actually three “gams” in English, and they all have separate sources.  The oldest is of Scottish origin, is used only in the plural, and means “‘large teeth or tusks.”  This usage first appeared around 1500, and seems to be largely defunct, although the use of “gam” to mean “mouth” in general was still in use in the 19th century.  The origin of this “gam” is uncertain, but it may be related to the Scots word “gamp,” meaning “to eat greedily.”

The second sort of “gam,” dating to the mid-19th century, means “a herd or school of whales” (or, by extension, “a social meeting of whalers at sea”).  This “gam” is thought to be a dialectical variant of the familiar English word “game,” probably drawn from the playful behavior of a group of whales.

All of which brings us to the third kind of “gams,” slang for a woman’s legs, especially if regarded as attractive.  “Gam” in this sense probably reminds most people of the “noir” crime novels and films of the 1930s and 40s and the hardboiled patois of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (“The gams!  The gams!  Your face ain’t news!”, Mildred Pierce, 1941).  But “gam” in this sense is actually considerably older than Sam Spade, dating back to at least the late 18th century.  And “gam,” which began as underworld slang, originally referred to the leg of either sex, and not necessarily an attractive one.

There are two theories about the origin of “gam” meaning “leg.”  The shorter and more straightforward one simply traces it to the Italian word “gamba,” also meaning “leg.”

The other theory treads the same ground, but with a detour, tracing “gam” to the old word “gamb,” meaning the representation of a leg on a coat of arms, which comes from the French “gambe,” a close cousin of that Italian “gamba.”  Interestingly, another form of “gambe” in French was “jambe,” which gave us our modern English word “jamb,” as in “door jamb,” the supporting side pieces of a door frame.  The connection between a door “jamb” and the “leg” meaning of “gam” and its relatives may seem murky, but the “jambs” were named because they serve as “legs” supporting the lintel, the piece at the top of the door frame.  Even a door frame, it seems, needs legs to stand on.

Sea Change

Plus ça change?

Dear Word Detective:  What is the correct spelling and derivation of “sea change” or “C  change” (perhaps meaning an important or major change in some circumstance)? — Sean.

It’s a truism of anthropology that human beings are pattern-seeking creatures, and we tend to notice when things happen after (and perhaps because) other things happen.  This is as true of this column as it is of chicken farming or pole vaulting.  So when we decide to have a presidential election, I can expect to receive lots of questions about such words as “stump,” “caucus,” “soapbox,” “poll,” “ballot,” “narcolepsy” and “emigration.”  This means that I get to repeat myself in print at least a few times every four years, although I do my best to spice up the answers with fresh cat stories.

What’s a bit odd, although also absolutely predictable, is that whenever the winner of the election is not of the party to which the previous president belonged (still with me?), I am deluged with inquiries about the phrase “sea change” (which is indeed the correct spelling).  It’s almost as if the news media and their Pavlovian pundits were programmed to spit out this particular phrase whenever the White House gets new drapes, thereby confusing their listeners, who then write to me.  I’m not complaining, of course.  I just wish there were a way to float derivatives based on this certainty.

When pundits use the phrase “sea change” today, they usually mean “a profound change in the situation or the way things are done” (“Borosage said President-elect Obama’s victory spearheaded not only a change election, but a sea change election, marking the end of a conservative era,” Marketwatch, 11/07/08).

Like many of our most colorful phrases, “sea change” was coined by William Shakespeare, in this case in his play “The Tempest,” in Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:  “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Shakespeare’s “sea change” was more than a change in the appearance or functioning of the thing changed; it was a radical change in the very nature and composition of the thing itself (“Of his bones are coral made”), the kind of fundamental change that would result from long submersion in the sea.

As a metaphor for radical change, “sea change” had legs, as they say, although it certainly took a while to get going. The first use of the term in print found (so far) after Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in 1610 didn’t come until Ezra Pound’s poem “Lustra” in 1917.  Subsequent usage of the phrase tended to restrict it to situations where a truly momentous change had taken place (“The Messianic vision … has undergone some strange sea-changes outside Judaism,” 1976).

Unfortunately, as “sea change” has gained more popularity lately, its meaning has often been diluted and trivialized (“Gavin believes that this update indicates a sea change for the software and web applications…,”  In the ultimate insult to the Bard, “sea change” has been harnessed as bizspeak (“Business is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to staffing and retaining superior talent,” New York Times), and I’m sure that somewhere out there right now a trucking company is promising a “sea change in package delivery.”  Full fathom five them all, I say.