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April 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun.

Back in the first week of April, I was putting together this issue when I noticed that some comments needed approving. So I started combing through them as usual, approving the sane ones and nuking the spam, when I noticed that one of the less coherent spam comments could not be deleted. As they say on Law & Order, DUM dum. That ain’t right.

So I decide to think on it for a while (which is my response to almost every crisis that doesn’t involve either loaded weapons or the fire department) and went back to updating the site. Which is when I noticed that the entire site had suddenly gone bananas. Password-protected subscriber-only posts were appearing on the front page (not good), the Ask a Question page was non-functional (really bad), and the Index of one zillion pages suddenly consisted of just two entries, both in the category of “Odds & Ends.” Boy howdy. OK, now I’m freaking out.

You may not know this, but when you read a blog or other site running on WordPress, what you’re seeing is actually data pulled from a separate MySQL database. Everything on this site — posts, comments, categories, dates, etc. — is data in tables in that database. So evidently My Little Database is borked. No problemo! I have site backups created every day by a plugin and stashed elsewhere in my hosting account at I’ll just fire up the old FTP program, fetch them and restore the whole shebang. Uh, no. Apparently the permissions on that target directory got changed at some point and all my backups since March 2011 have been sliding straight into the bit-bucket. They don’t exist. It is now 3 am and I am seriously starting to freak.

So I write to support at And they answer about five minutes later. At 3:30 am! I love Pair. They say they have a backup, but it’s a general server backup, so no guarantees. And, in fact, it makes things worse. So I go back to square one, install the latest version of WP, restore the site to what it was a year ago, and start manually editing the database.

As it stands now, the site contains everything it should, but there are gaps in its memory (sounds familiar). If you’re looking for a particular word or phrase, the search box at the top of the left column is probably the best way to find it. I’m going to keep working on it. As to how all this happened, I don’t know. It may have been a botched hack (I was using a version of WP that apparently had vulnerabilities) or it could have just been a toxic conflict between two of the dozen or so plugins that I use to make the site run. Part of my problem is that I’ve been tinkering and adding things for years, and I am no longer sure just how everything works. As to why this all took so long to sorta-fix, it’s because my eyes have been on the fritz lately, making it hard to see much of anything.

Anyway, we’re up and running, at least. This issue is a bit short, but I will do my best to produce a proper May issue withing the next two weeks. If you’d like to boost my morale, you might consider subscribing.

And now, on with the show.



Dear Word Detective: What’s the deal with “nonetheless” or “nevertheless”? We all know what they mean, but when you reflect on the separate words, “none the less,” it makes no sense whatsoever (another weird, perhaps related, contraction). — Lee Hixson.

That’s a good question. But it’s also a bad question (Bad question! Bad!), because it gives me a headache when I think about it for more than a minute or two. There’s something about this whole class of jammed-up words that seems slippery and difficult to think about methodically. I vividly remember a friend of mine asking me, and this was at least fifteen years ago, to explain what in the world the word “notwithstanding” really meant (and why anyone had decided it meant that). That question ruined my whole day.

“Nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” are all English adverbs of considerable age. “Nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” first appeared in print in the late 14th century, and “nonetheless” in the early 16th century. These three are actually the survivors of an entire passel of words and phrases with the same general meaning in use at at various times but now obsolete, including “natheless,” “nautheless,” “naught the less,” “noughtwithstanding” and “notagainstanding” (“gainstand” being an archaic word meaning “to resist or oppose”).

All of these words mean roughly the same thing: “despite that,” “in spite of that” or “all the same.” The constituent parts of each word (“not,” “never,” “the,” “more,” “less,” etc.) are not a mystery; “withstand” is our familiar English word meaning “to resist or oppose, usually successfully” (“You have not the will to withstand your aunt,” 1882). But the sense of these words can be hard to explain precisely because they have acquired an idiomatic meaning over the years a bit different from the simple sum of their parts.

The key to “nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” is that they all require and refer to an antecedent statement, which may or may not be referred to elsewhere in the sentence. “Nonetheless” “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” mean that what has been said or known (call it “X”) does not prevent, diminish or invalidate, etc., the fact that the primary statement “Y” is true, valid, etc. (“Limo services Los Angeles have been in demand for years. Nonetheless, their business is fairly limited…,” 10/01/11). The first statement makes the second “none the less” (or “never the less”) true.

“Notwithstanding” is a bit odd in that it means that the primary assertion does, in fact, “withstand” the other statement or condition (“Notwithstanding his previous convictions for fraud, Bob was given a license to practice law”). The thing to remember is that no matter how strange these words may seem, they’re all ultimately just synonyms for “despite” or “in spite of.”

“Whatsoever” is another weird word, but it’s a bit easier to explain. “Whatsoever” is simply a more ornate and emphatic form of “whatever,” meaning (as a pronoun) “anything at all” (“In a few months we shall have stores of whatever we want,” 1832) or (as an adjective) “any” (“The Governor-General has been stripped of whatever little authority he retained,” 1887). Given the current dominance of “whatever” as a catch-all response indicating a pose of insolent apathy (“He said I was fired and I’m like ‘Whatever'”), I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen the emergence of “Whatsoever” for those times when you truly, madly, deeply don’t give a hoot.

“Spring” and “neap” tides

Stop whining and keep bailing.

Dear Word Detective: A reference book about nautical navigation says that the root for “spring” (tides) is from the Viking word for “lack of.” For “neap” (tides) it says the meaning is from the Viking word for “abundance.” I am having trouble verifying this statement; can you help? — Philip.

Gee, I miss the ocean. Although I live in rural Ohio now, I grew up on Long Island Sound. Literally. My family set me adrift in a small, leaky dinghy when I was twelve, and for weeks I lived off the flotsam and jetsam of passing merchant ships. Fortunately, I was adopted by a school of talking dolphins, who taught me to catch fish in mid-air and other crowd-pleasing tricks, and eventually I got a job at Sea World. That turned out to be excellent training for journalism, and here we are. Now I’m gonna go back and actually read your question.

Well, that’s strange. I really did grow up near the Sound, even sailed my own little sailboat as a kid, but I’d somehow missed learning about “neap” and “spring” tides. We just paid attention to when the tide was going to be “high” or “low,” mostly so we’d be able to avoid running aground on sand bars at low tide. “Neap” and “spring” tides are a bit more special than just “high” and “low.”

A “neap tide” occurs just after the first and third quarters of the moon, when the high tide is at its lowest point, i.e., the lowest height above “low” tide (and thus there is the least difference between high and low tides). Apparently at those times the moon, earth and sun are arrayed so that the gravitational pull of the sun does not add to the pull of the moon as it usually does. “Neap” first appeared in Old English (in the form “nepflod,” or “neap flood”), and the origin of the word is a complete mystery. By the way, I’d be a bit leery of the navigational advice of an author who claims “neap” comes from a “Viking” (presumably Old Norse) word meaning “abundance.” Not only is there no evidence for that, but it doesn’t even make sense. How would the lowest high tide be considered “abundance” of anything except wet sand and dangerous reefs?

It is true that “neap” appears to have relatives in German, Swedish and Danish, but those words were probably ultimately borrowed from English, so that’s no help. The one theory that seems plausible ties “neap” to the English words “nip” and/or “neb” (meaning the bill or beak of a bird). You could make a case that when the level of high tide converges with that of low tide, the difference between the two narrows like the beak of a bird, or perhaps something that is “nipped,” squeezed together sharply.

A “spring tide” is the opposite of a “neap tide,” i.e., the point just after either a full or new moon when the high tide reaches its highest point above the level of low tide. Again, the story related in that book doesn’t make sense. Why would the highest high tide come from a word meaning “lack of?” I think the dude has his theories backwards. And as for where the “spring” in “spring tide” came from, that’s easy; we don’t need no stinking Vikings. It’s the common English word “spring.”

The noun and adjective forms of “spring” come from the verb “to spring,” which first appeared in Old English as “springan,” meaning “to burst out, rise up suddenly, leap, etc.” The season we know as “spring” gets its name from the notion of life (plants in particular) bursting forth after being dormant during the winter. But that usage didn’t actually arise until the mid-16th century. The earliest use of “spring” as a noun was in reference to the kind of “spring” where water issues or wells out of the earth, and it is this “rising water” sense of “spring” that gave us “spring tide,” also first appearing in the mid-16th century.

Interestingly, “spring tide” was initially also used to mean “the time of the season of spring” or “springtime.” That’s because the word “tide,” which came from the same Germanic root (“tidiz”) that gave us “time,” originally just meant “time” or “a specific period of time.” So “Yuletide,” a synonym for the time around Christmas, simply means “the time when the Yule log is traditionally burned,” i.e., Christmas. “Tide” wasn’t applied to the periodic fluctuations in ocean levels until the 14th century.