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. (note: JavaScript must be turned on in your browser to view results.)


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 2007 – 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.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. 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

Careen / Career

You’re doing it wrong

Dear Word Detective:  I went to the dictionary last night to check the difference between “careen” and “career” (as verbs).  In my mind I had the words as interchangeable and was curious if the difference (ending in “n” vs. ending in “r”) was merely an etymological typo.  Then, on reading the definition for “careen,” I saw the phrase “heel over” which is strikingly similar (in spelling and definition) to “keel over” and again points to another word-morph — especially considering that my dictionary indicates “careen” comes from the Greek for “keel.”  The question, I guess, is how did “careen” and “career” and “heel over” and “keel over” evolve to be such similar words? — Rick Ceschin.

Although “careen” and “career” as verbs are often used interchangeably today, they are, in fact, quite separate words.  Strictly speaking, “careen” means “to lean over, to tilt,” while “career” as a verb means “to rush at full speed” (with implications of recklessness).

“Careen,” which first appeared in English in the late 16th century, originally meant “to turn a ship on its side for caulking, etc.”  The root of “careen” is the Latin “carina,” meaning “keel of a ship” (originally “nutshell,” from the similarity of a ship’s hull to a nutshell).  The use of “careen” in the more general sense of “to tilt” dates to the late 19th century.

“Career” as a verb meaning “to move at full speed” is actually the same word as the noun “career” meaning “profession or course of employment or activity.”  The root of “career” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning “wheeled vehicle” (which is also the source of “car”).  One Middle French derivative of “carrus” was “carriere,” meaning “racecourse,” and when the noun “career” first appeared in English it meant “racetrack,”  the “course of life” meaning being a later metaphorical development.  So it makes sense that the verb “career,” reflecting that original “racetrack” meaning of the noun, would mean “to race at top speed.”

Interestingly, “careen” and “career” began to be used interchangeably only in the early 20th century, just about the time people noticed that a motor car rounding a curve at high speed (“careering”) tended to tilt quite a bit (“careening”).  Purists still draw a distinction between the two words, but it’s really a losing battle at this point.

“Heel” and “keel” are also two entirely separate words, though as verbs their meanings are very similar.  “Heel” as a verb meaning “to tilt over” comes from the Old English “hyldan,” meaning to incline or “list” as an unbalanced ship might.  (This “heel” is unrelated to the noun “heel” meaning the rearmost portion of the foot.)  “Keel” as a verb (“keel over”) comes from “keel” as a noun meaning the lowest longitudinal timber of a ship or boat (i.e., the absolute bottom of a ship’s hull), drawn from the Old Norse word for it, “kjolr.”  To “keel” or “keel over” originally, in the 18th century, meant to roll completely over, as a ship overturning and showing its keel.  Today we use “keel over” to mean “suddenly collapse” or “fall over.”


Cellar feller.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you tell me the derivation of the word “guy” as in “Guys and Dolls.”  I am told it is a contraction of a Yiddish word meaning “fellow” or “man.”  It apparently reflects the growth of the language from Hebrew via Russia and German. — Brian Steven.

That’s a good question, but I think we’re going to have to change your “apparently” to “supposedly.”  You don’t say where you heard or read that theory about “guy” being a contraction of a Yiddish word, but it’s not true.  The only explanation I can think of for that misunderstanding is that someone noticed the resemblance of “guy” to “goy,” which is a designation used among Jews for a person who is not Jewish, i.e., a gentile.  “Goy” in this usage  comes from the Hebrew word “goy” (plural “goyim”) meaning “people, nation.”  Interestingly, “gentile” also comes from a word meaning “people” or “nation,” in this case the Latin “gens.”

Meanwhile, back at “guy,” the real story is a fascinating one.  The first thing to note is that “guy” is not only an informal English term for “man” or “fellow.”  “Guy” is also a proper name for men, pronounced “gy” (with a hard “g”) in English, but “gee” (also with a hard “g”) in French.  I mention French because the name “Guy” is from Norman French and is related to the same Germanic root that gave us “guide.”  And that, in turn, is relevant because the same “guide”  root gave us the English term “guy wire” (or line, or rope), the long cables that keep tall antennas and the like from falling over.

The fact that “Guy” is a proper name is important because “guy” in the sense of “fellow” is an eponym, a word formed from the proper name of a person, in this case a person named “Guy.”  This original “guy” was Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 was hanged for his involvement in what came to be known as the Gunpowder Plot.  Fawkes and his co-conspirators had planned to blow up England’s Houses of Parliament while King James I and many of the aristocracy were inside.  Fawkes was apprehended at the last moment, in the act of lighting the fuses on barrels of powder that had been smuggled into a cellar beneath Parliament.

The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot made November 5, “Guy Fawkes Day,” a national holiday in England.  The crude effigies of Fawkes burned on bonfires amid raucous celebration were known as “guys,” and “guy” eventually came to mean “a figure or person of bizarre appearance.”  Since the story of Guy Fawkes was not well known in the US, however, we adopted “guy” in the 19th century as just a synonym for “man” or “fellow.”  In the past few years, “guy” has become largely gender-neutral, and waiters in particular seem fond of addressing a table of men and women as “you guys.”

Incidentally, in the popular 2006 film “V for Vendetta,” the character “V” wears a mask based on a caricature of Guy Fawkes, and the film begins, as I recall, by invoking a popular poem written in the wake of Fawkes’ plot: “Remember, remember the fifth of November, The gunpowder, treason and plot, I know of no reason, Why the gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot.”

Tin Pan Alley


Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the term “Tin Pan Alley,” and what does it mean?  I’m guessing it has to do with the Great Depression (the first one, not the current one).  — Nathan Keyes.

Depression?  Bummer.  But you know, whenever I’m depressed, it always makes me feel better to go over to the poor part of town, ask around until I find a few forlorn investment bankers, and slip them a few trillion dollars.  Just seeing their little snouts light up in joy makes it all worthwhile.  Actually, it occurred to me awhile back that being stuck on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, as we are, may soon have its advantages (provided, of course, that  we can figure out how to raise something besides cats).  Where do you get pepperoni seeds?

Onward.  “Tin Pan Alley” is a popular term for the music industry, especially the songwriting and publishing part of it (as opposed to the recording industry).  Linguistically, the term “Tin Pan Alley” is a “synecdoche” (sih-NEK-doh-key), a figure of speech in which a specific thing or place stands in for a broader category, as the term “Wall Street” stands for the world of high finance and the stock market in general or “Hollywood” stands for the movie industry.  Like Wall Street, Tin Pan Alley is a real place in New York City, specifically a stretch  of West 28th Street, where, at least in the first half of the 20th century, music publishers had their offices and many of the great songwriters plied their trade.

Though a pan made of tin certainly conjures up images of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New York songwriting district has been known as “Tin Pan Alley” since at least 1903.    An article published that year in The World (a long-defunct New York newspaper), uncovered by etymologist Barry Popik, noted that at that time the songwriters themselves were trying to promote the classier term “Melody Lane” for the area, but “Tin Pan Alley” had already caught the public’s fancy.

Tin Pan Alley owes its name, logically enough, to a bit of late 19th century musicians’ slang.  A “tin pan” or “tin-panny” was a cheap piano, so-called because its shallow, tinny tone was likened to beating on a tin pan.  If you can imagine a summer’s day on Tin Pan Alley in the early 1900s, filled with the cacophony of “tin-pannies” wafting from the open office  windows of a hundred music publishers, you’ll see why “Tin Pan Alley” was such a perfect name for the New York music business.

If you’ve ever had a hankering to see Tin Pan Alley proper (usually considered to be West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues) in person, you’d better act fast.  As of late 2008, five of the  Victorian brownstone buildings that remain of the original Tin Pan Alley are up for sale, probably destined to be demolished to make way for another glass and steel monstrosity.  Of course, with real estate prices now plunging, you might be able to snag at least one of the buildings for, as they say, a song.