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Fits and starts

It’s a bad sign that this immediately reminds me of our car, henceforth to be known as “Lurch.”

Dear Word Detective: I was surprised to come up empty on the the Word Detective site in a search for “fits and starts.” I’ve heard people of a certain age use the expression to describe something unsteady or intermittent. Any back-story on this expression? — Charlie Nunzio.

Well, you’ve saved me some time. Now I don’t have to do my usual search of my own website to make sure I haven’t already answered your question.

“Fits and starts” does indeed mean “intermittent” or “off and on, spasmodically, not making steady progress.” A project that proceeds “by fits and starts” will advance a bit one day, less the next, perhaps take a week or so off, then enjoy a burst of energy when the boss comes to visit, and so on. The first part of a large lawn mowed “in fits and starts” will, I can attest from personal experience, need mowing again by the time the last bit is done.

Interestingly, our modern phrase “by fits and starts” represents the merger of two earlier, and now largely obsolete, phrases: “by starts,” which first appeared around 1421, and “by fits,” dating to 1583. Both phrases meant, brace yourself, exactly what “by fits and starts” means today. But English idioms often operate on the more-is-better model, as in such redundant phrases as “by leaps and bounds,” where “bound” is simply a synonym for “leap” and both mean “to spring or jump forward energetically.”

There are several “fit” words in English, the most common probably being the verb “to fit,” meaning “to be of proper size” or “to be suitable,” as well as “to modify something to make it conform to requirements.” The verb “to fit” appeared in the late 16th century, probably derived from the adjective “fit,” meaning “proper or suitable,” which may have been a development of the Middle English “fit” meaning “an opponent of equal power” (possibly connected to the Old English “fitt” meaning “conflict”).

The noun “fit” found in “fits and starts” is considered a different word than that “fit,” but it also seems to have been derived, somewhat more directly, from that Old English “fitt” meaning “conflict.” Beginning in the 16th century, this “fit” was used to mean “an intense but usually transitory attack of illness or other disorder,” and by the 17th century it meant specifically “a paroxysm or seizure often involving unconsciousness.” The sudden violence of a physical “fit” led to the word being used to mean “a sudden burst of spasmodic activity,” thus giving us the “fit” in “fits and starts.”

The “starts” in the phrase comes from the verb “to start,” which, drawn from Germanic roots, originally meant “to leap, jump, spring or move suddenly.” The modern sense of “to begin or set in motion” is actually a relatively late arrival, dating to the 17th century. The noun form “start” initially meant “a moment or an instant,” but by the early 15th century was used to mean “a sudden and transient effort or movement,” roughly the sense now found in “fits and starts.” The use of “start” to mean “a beginning” didn’t appear until 1566.

Another use of the verb “to start,” that of “to move abruptly in fear or surprise” gave us both a noun for that reaction (“One or two old men were dozing upon their chairs, waking up every now and then with a start.” 1902) and the verb “to startle,” meaning “to react or cause someone to suddenly react with alarm or fear” (“Bob was startled by the unexpected arrival of his boss during his afternoon nap.”).


Surf’s up.

Dear Word Detective: Yet another of my friends graduated from law school a few months ago and is now studying for the bar exam, which gives me plenty of opportunities to make bad jokes about the tutors who hang out down at the local dive. Yesterday I was about to make a joke about the phrase “moaning of the bar,” which I remembered from a poem about death we read in school, when I realized that I didn’t remember what that “bar” was. I’m also not entirely certain what the “bar” in “bar exam” is, either. Can I get a twofer? — Arnold S.

Yeah, sure, it’s a slow day. You really shouldn’t mock your pal, though, given the critical shortage of lawyers our nation is facing. Um, why isn’t there a rim-shot key on my keyboard? Anyway, the poem about death you vaguely remember is “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who also penned such upbeat, toe-tapping classics as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”) and “Tears, Idle Tears.”

Alfred was a moody fellow, to put it mildly, and spent an inordinate amount of time¬† staring glumly at the sea, which inspired (if that’s the right word) “Crossing the Bar.” The first stanza sets a somber tone: “Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea.” (I don’t have room for the whole thing, but, trust me, it doesn’t get any cheerier.) The “bar” is a sandbar, a ridge of sand or silt often found at the entrance to a harbor or where a river joins the sea. Tennyson is using putting out to sea as a metaphor for death, the “bar” being the boundary between life and death he must pass over. At low tide, waves break on the bar with the sound of “moaning” (like the moaning of wind) and a ship’s passage out of the harbor is difficult. Tennyson wishes for a high, swift outbound tide making for easy passage out into the “boundless deep” of death, where he hopes “to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.” Alrighty then, anyone for cake?

Passing the bar exam and being admitted to the bar have, thankfully, nothing to do with Alfred’s Grim Reaper Regatta. The “bar” to which larval lawyerfolk aspire is the officially recognized legal profession, joined by passing an examination and petitioning the licensing authority for admission. “Bar” in this sense is a metaphorical reference to a literal bar, the wooden railing separating the spectator section in a courtroom from the persons actively involved in the court action (prosecutors, defense counsel, jury, judge, etc.). “Bar” has been used in this sense since the 14th century, and in the British system lawyers who appear in court are called “barristers” (“bar” plus “ster,” forming an agent noun) as opposed to “solicitors,” who render legal advice, etc., to clients. “Bar” is also used to mean the legal profession as a whole (“The Bar, the Pulpit and the Press Nefariously combine.” 1695).

Clutch one’s pearls

Oh, my stars and garters! Film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:¬† The phrase “clutching her pearls” seems to describe a situation in which the clutcher, invariably female, is shocked or horrified by some event she perceives as vulgar or in bad taste. The phrase was recently applied to a New York Times editorial, which was described as “The Gray Lady clutched her pearls.” I’m guessing that the phrase originated with Margaret Dumont, the dowager foil in so many Marx Brothers movies. Is this correct? — Allan Pratt.

Wow. I knew Margaret Dumont appeared in several Marx Brothers movies, always playing essentially the same character, a wealthy society dowager whose good-natured dignity and sense of propriety served as a backstop for most of Groucho’s jokes. But I hadn’t known until I read her Wikipedia entry that Dumont was actually in seven (!) Marx Brothers movies; no wonder Groucho later described her as “practically the fifth Marx Brother.” (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo were the performing brothers; Gummo, the real fifth brother, never appeared in the movies.)

Whether Dumont was playing Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers (1930), Mrs. Teasdale in Duck Soup (1933) or Mrs. Upjohn in A Day at the Races (1937), sooner or later Groucho would do or say something appalling, and Dumont would recoil, teeter or even faint dead away in shock. I don’t happen to have easy access to any Marx Brothers movies at the moment, but my recollection is that Dumont would, in such a moment, raise her hand to her upper chest in a gesture of shock, a classic bit of “stage business” to indicate distress. Whether she actually “clutched” her pearl necklace or not, the use of “clutching one’s pearls” to mean “reacting in shock to a violation of propriety” is clearly a reference to this well-worn device, probably as old as drama itself. More recently, Mrs. Howell of Gilligan’s Island made this gesture in nearly every episode.

While the dramatic device of a character signaling outraged sensibilities by “clutching her pearls” is of long standing, the phrase itself became popular as a mocking metaphor, meaning “being ostentatiously shocked by something not all that shocking,” especially if the “shock” was feigned or reflected outdated social prejudices. According to a article from 2012, the metaphor’s “breakout moment” came in a 1990 episode of Keenen and Damon Wayans’ “In Living Color” Fox Network comedy show, in a skit called “Men on Film” ( As summarized by Slate’s Torie Bosch, “After Blaine Edwards (played by Damon Wayans) waxes about how ‘daring’ producers were to cast a male actor as the ‘female’ lead in Dangerous Liaisons, his sidekick Antoine Merriweather tells him that Glenn Close is actually a woman, prompting Blaine to gasp, ‘Clutch the pearls!'”

The rise of the internet from the mid-1990s on, and particularly the handy ability it brought to snipe at political or cultural foes in real time, seems to have given “clutch the pearls” and “pearl-clutching” a steady gig in the less formal precincts of our political discourse. Any impassioned protest or objection by one side is sure to elicit snide references to “pearl clutching” from the other. In the case of the New York Times, the paper’s nickname of “the Gray Lady” (dating to a 1951 Life magazine article on the paper’s 100th anniversary) has probably earned it a bit more than its share of “pearl-clutching” jibes.