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

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

I would gladly pay you Tuesday.

Dear Word Detective:  Having been at the periphery of the business world for over 30 years, I’m well-acquainted with the technique of funding one project at the expense of another: “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Where did the phrase come from? Was Peter a banker and Paul a bookie? (Hey, I can hope…) — Steve Ford.

Um, no, we’re talking saints here, which rules out both those professions (although most bookies don’t have to worry about that camel-needle thing, which puts them a few rungs up, in my degenerate opinion). I’m heartened to see that bookies still exist in our brave networked world; the thought of a bookie sitting by the phone in a smoke-filled room is charmingly Runyonesque. The French call this sort of thing “nostalgie de la boue” (nostalgia for the gutter), and I plead guilty. I also miss Times Square before it became Disneyfied. Oh well…

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul” is indeed a mainstay of our economic system, especially these days, when we focus less on actually making grubby old things and more on manipulating debt. Much of the corporate-takeover fever of the late 20th century, in fact, took the form of “leveraged buy-outs,” where outsiders would borrow money in order to buy a company, which was then often broken up and sold off piecemeal to repay the debt. In that arrangement the bankers were Paul, and Peter, often thousands of Peters, were robbed of a job.

The Peter and Paul of the phrase are indeed the Apostles of Jesus, Peter (aka Simon Peter) and Paul (originally Saul of Tarsus). “Rob Peter to pay Paul” as an English idiom is very old, and its exact origin is unclear. Christine Ammer, in her excellent dictionary of cliches “Have a Nice Day; No Problem!”, mentions one theory that traces it to the 1540 conversion of Saint Peter’s church in London into a cathedral. The story goes that when St. Peter’s was integrated into the diocese of London ten years later, much of its resources were appropriated to finance the restoration of St. Paul’s cathedral, thus “robbing” St. Peter’s to “pay” St. Paul’s. If this theory strikes you as overly elaborate and unlikely, I have good news. It’s also impossible, because “to rob Peter to pay Paul” is found in the writings of John Wycliff, philosopher, theologian and creator of Wycliff’s Bible, around 1382, roughly 150 years before St. Paul’s makeover.

In all likelihood, the connection between “to rob Peter to pay Paul” and the Apostles Peter and Paul goes no further than conveniently invoking two very well-known names that are attractively alliterative. Another passage, this one from around 1400, reads “Some medicine is for Peter but is not good for Paul.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to go looking for something about head colds in the New Testament.

Holy Mackerel

It’s probably conspiring with the Bart Simpson Chia Pet.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term “Holy mackerel” come from? — John.

That’s a darn good question, but am I the only one around here who gets creeped out by that phrase? After staring at it a minute or two, all I could think of was the Big Mouth Billy Bass novelty gag I stashed in my closet about ten years ago. I’m afraid it’s mad at me. For the uninitiated, Billy Bass was an animatronic fish, mounted on a plastic wall plaque, that sang such tunes as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River” while wiggling in a disturbing fashion. Billy Bass was a fad in the early 2000s, and appeared several times on The Sopranos, both as the toy itself and as the inspiration for a talking fish in one of Tony’s dreams. (Said fish was channeling Salvatore Bonpensiero, a mob turncoat Tony murdered and disposed of at sea, and who thus “sleeps with the fishes.”) Anyway, Billy’s somewhere in that closet, biding his time.

“Holy mackerel” is, of course, an interjection expressing astonishment or dismay (“Holy mackerel! What a way to run an army!” 1958), and first became popular around the 1870s. It’s one of a family of such phrases, all appearing in the 19th century, including such hardy perennials as “Holy smoke” (or “smokes”), “Holy cow” and “Holy Moses.”

“Mackerel” are actually a family of several related species of ocean fish that have in common a striped body and deeply forked tail. Mackerel are a popular food fish around the world, but apparently spoil quickly and “stinking like a mackerel” is a common metaphor in literature.

The name “mackerel,” which first appeared in English around 1300, is a bit of a mystery. Probably the most common (and certainly the most entertaining) explanation ties “mackerel” the fish to the Old French word “mackerele,” which means “procurer” or “pimp.” The English form of the French word, also “mackerel,” has been used to mean “pimp” since the 15th century (“Hundreds of ‘night birds’ and their ‘mackerels’ and other vice-pushers were sent packing.”1981).

Tying the name of a small fish to a word meaning “pimp” might seem to pose an insurmountable task, but the human imagination was, apparently, up to the job. The mackerel fish, goes the theory, was called that because people believed that it played an unspecified but important role in the life-cycle of another staple fish, the herring, by somehow facilitating Mommy Herring and Daddy Herring getting together. Personally, I don’t even want to think about how people thought this worked, but there it is. Not surprisingly, most etymological authorities have considered this “fish pimp” theory bunk, not least because no one even suggested it until the 19th century.

As for why mackerel crops up in “Holy mackerel,” the most likely explanation also applies to “Holy Moses.” Both “Holy mackerel” and “Holy Moses” probably arose as euphemistic forms of “Holy Mary,” which might well be considered blasphemous if used as a casual oath or expression of surprise. “Holy mackerel” is apparently just weird enough to pass theological muster.

Left to one’s own devices

Alone time, with beeps.

Dear Word Detective: I am curious about the phrase “left to his own devices,” which is often used to mean “left free to entertain himself.” It has the feel of a phrase which might pre-date smart phones and tablets, so what kinds of devices does the phrase refer to? — Steve Ford.

Better watch it, or you’re gonna get me started. Oops, too late. I think it was about the time that “smart phone” became “smartphone” that I decided the Luddites were right. So I’ve stepped off the slowly-moving Carousel of Technology (which hasn’t produced a genuinely new idea in at least ten years) and I’m planning to spend the duration sitting on a bench talking to pigeons. Yes, I have computers, plural, but they’re all pretty old, and our cell phone is the crude flip-phone kind you see in “The Wire” (2002). It lives in the glove compartment, and I think the battery is dead. Ask me if I care.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has a note on its entry for “device” explaining that the definition “has not yet been fully updated” since it was first published in 1895. So it’s not surprising that they don’t include the use of “device” to mean smartphones, tablets and those cute little Google Glasses people wear when they want to test their health insurance coverage. But that use of “device” to mean “an object, machine, or piece of equipment that has been made for some special purpose” ( is now clearly the primary one, probably followed in popularity by “device” meaning “an explosive or bomb” as in “nuclear device.” (The OED does include this definition in a 1977 addendum.) A “device” can also be a scheme, pretext or trick (“Larry asking me to fetch beer was just a device to get me out of the house”) or a “dramatic device,” a plot development (such as the classic “Evil Twin” in soap operas) introduced to spice up a movie, play or novel.

“Device,” which first appeared in English in the early 13th century, comes from the same Old French roots that gave us the verb “to devise” (to invent or plan), roots which in turn rest on the Latin verb “dividere,” to divide (also the source of our English “divide”). In Old French the sense was both “to divide” and “to plan,” which in English gave us “device” meaning “invention or plan.” It was also used to mean “wishes, desires or opinions.” The specific meaning of “machine or contrivance” didn’t arise until the 16th century.

To leave someone “to their own devices” is a fairly recent idiom, dating to the late 19th century (“What would you do, if left to your own devices?” 1870), and the original sense of “devices” in the phrase was simply “wishes” or “preferences.” But over time “device” in the phrase has drifted in the direction of the sense of “scheme, plan, plot or trick,” and today the implication of “to leave someone to their own devices” is that, if given the chance, the person will probably do something at least mildly sneaky.