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Strand, Beach

I’m not stranded. I’m just very securely moored.

Dear Word Detective: I have always been an avid fan of word history but there is one word that I have never been able to find a definitive background on: “beach.” The original Germanic/English for “beach” is “strand.” Today we only use “strand” and “stranded” when a whale is caught on shore or a person is lost on an island (or away from means of communication). Latin-based languages have some form of “playa.” Where does “beach” come from and how did it so completely overtake “strand”? — Matthew Waldman.

That’s an interesting question. “Playa,” incidentally, is rooted in the post-classical Latin “plagia,” meaning “shore.”

As you note, “strand” seems to have shuffled off the stage of everyday usage but was once the standard term for what we now call a “beach.” Dating back to Old English, “strand” is a bit of a mystery, but it seems to hark back to the Old Norse “strond,” meaning shore, and some authorities trace it back to the Indo-European root “ster,” meaning “to stretch out.” The original meaning of “strand” was “the area of the shore between high and low tide marks,” but by the 13th century it was being used for any shoreline and even docks and quays on a river. The street called “the Strand” in London once lay alongside the Thames River.

Of course, how much fun a beach can be depends to a certain extent on where you sit. For the captain of a sailing ship, running aground on a “strand” was bad news indeed, so by the early 17th century “strand” had become a verb meaning “to drive or force aground on a shore,” and by the 19th century a figurative use of the verb meaning “to leave helpless” had arisen, setting the stage for millions of travelers to be “stranded” by bad weather every winter.

If the story of “strand” is a little murky, the history of “beach” is a major puzzle. It’s a more recent word than “strand,” first popping up in English in the early 16th century, and the initial meaning of “beach” was not the expanse of sand we normally think of, but simply the smooth pebbles and rocks found on the seashore. The expansion of “beach” to cover the whole shore in the late 16th century was probably due to a popular misunderstanding of the “pebbles” connotation of “beach” in phrases such as “walk on the beach.”

As for the origin of “beach,” theories range from the Old Norse “bakki” (“bank,” as of a stream) to the Old English “baece” (stream) to “beach” being a mutation of “bleach” (as stones are bleached by the sun and water).

So why do we now say “beach” and not “strand”? Shakespeare did his part to popularize “beach” in his works, for one thing. But it may be primarily because, by the 16th century, “strand” was being used to mean docks and the like, leaving “beach” to take on the specific meaning of “sandy shore of the ocean.” Besides, “the Strand Boys” would have had real problems getting a record deal.


Dear Word Detective: This morning I read an article in the New York Times about the discovery of an ancient Roman road in the Netherlands. In describing the original road, the writer noted that it was “known in Latin as the ‘limes,'”–which made me wonder if this explains why the British call the trees that line long driveways “lime trees.” Since this wasn’t in your archive, I Googled “lime tree” and found this Wikipedia explanation: “The trees are generally called ‘linden’ in North America, and ‘lime’ in Britain. Both names are derived from the Germanic root ‘lind.’ The modern forms in English derive from ‘linde’ or ‘linne’ in Anglo Saxon and old Norse, and in Britain the word transformed more recently to the modern British form ‘lime.'” But I’m still wondering if there’s any association with the Roman road. — Laura Stempel.

Golly, that’s an interesting question, good for hours of research fun. I’m tempted to save it for a rainy day, but since it’s been raining here pretty much non-stop for more than a week, I guess I’d better just get to it. It’s easier than figuring out why it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit in January.

[Editor’s note: I feel obligated to point out that if you were a subscriber, you would have read this column last January, and that sentence would have made a bit more sense.]

There are three “limes” in English, each a distinct word with no relation to the others. The first is the substance “lime,” composed of carbonates, oxides and other tangy flavors of calcium. This is the stuff found in “limestone,” used in concrete, and to be avoided if at all possible in the highly caustic form “quicklime.”

The second “lime” is the citrus fruit, which takes its name from the Arabic “limun,” also the source of the English word “lemon.”

The third “lime” is the tree sort, specifically of the Tilia genus, which are popular ornamental trees in Europe as well as America, where they are more commonly called “linden” trees. As you discovered, both “lime” and “linden” hark back to the Germanic root “lind.” Roads lined with stately lime trees are a common sight in Europe and occasionally found here in the US, although we seem to prefer our scenic strip malls and gas stations.

As beautiful as a road lined with lime trees is, however, there is no connection between lime trees and the Roman road described in the article you read. The Latin word “limes” originally meant “a path,” especially one between fields, as well as any sort of boundary or property line. The Latin “limes,” in fact, gave us our modern word “limit.”

The “limes” uncovered in the Netherlands was apparently part of the “Limes Germanicus,” the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. More than just a road, it was designed as a barrier to block the Germanic tribes that threatened Roman control of northern Europe. The Roman Empire protected itself with such “limes” in several locations, including Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and the “Limes Arabicus” in the Roman province of Arabia. So parts of the “limes” mentioned in the article may have been lined with “lime” trees, but that’s not why the road was called “the limes.”


Spare me.

Dear Word Detective: I am writing to you from the research department of a large magazine. We have a story that I am fact-checking in which the author states: “… a friend of mine told me that the origin of the word ‘forgive’ means to untie….” This kind of statement causes fact-checkers a lot of stress. Of course I am unable to verify this “fact” and am forced to go hunting on my own. Do you have any insight into the origin of the word “forgive?” — N. R.

Hmm. Odd. But this brings up a question of my own. I have always wondered how many layers, so to speak, fact-checkers are expected to plow through in search of “the truth.” In this case, for instance, you have an author who reports that a friend said that “forgive” originally meant “untie.” Let us presume that you verify that the author’s friend actually said that. So the statement by the author is true. You then have to worry whether the friend is right? Perhaps the friend read it in a book written by a fellow in Helsinki. Where do you stop? After all, if that open-ended approach were applied to the statements of politicians, newspapers would contain nothing but ads for lost pets.

In this case, being the helpful sort that I am, I can report that the author’s friend’s cousin’s landlord’s parrot, or whoever we’re talking about, is seriously misinformed. “Forgive” never meant “untie.” The root of “forgive” is the Latin word “perdonare,” meaning “to give completely, without reservation.” (That “perdonare” is also the source of our English “pardon.”)

When the Latin “perdonare” was adopted into the Germanic ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece, making the result what linguists call a “calque” (from the French “calquer,” to trace or copy) a literal transliteration. “Per” was replaced by “for,” a prefix that in this case means “thoroughly,” and “donare” with “giefan” (“to give”). The result, “forgiefan,” appeared in Old English meaning “to give up, allow” as well as “to give in marriage.” In modern English, “forgive” has also taken on the meanings of “to pardon for an offense,” “renounce anger at” (“I forgive you for feeding bean tacos to my dog “) and “to abandon a claim on” (as in “forgive a debt”).

As to where your author’s friend’s “untie” theory might have come from, I catch a whiff of New Age psychobabble in that story. It’s easy to imagine some pop-happiness guru explaining that our anger and resentment are the “ties” that bind us, and that only by “forgiving” others can we be freed to chase butterflies through fields of daisies or whatever. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it practiced by the IRS.