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Dear Word Detective:  I was shocked to see no origin on your website of the word “forte,” which is always mispronounced. It is actually correct to say “fort” (no “ay” sound for the “e”) unless you are using it as a musical term. It means “strength” (“My forte is painting”) and comes from fact that sword makers could make any part of the sword the strongest according to what you are fighting. The weakest part of the sword was called the “foible” (“I have many foibles,” i.e., weaknesses). — Dale.

Well, as I frequently have occasion to tell folks, it’s a big language with lots of words, and it’s gonna take me some time to work my way through all of them. On the other hand, I’ve been writing three columns per week for seventeen years, so that’s 2652 words and phrases I’ve gotten around to explaining. Y’know, I did that multiplication just now expecting the result to be inspiring, but it’s actually kind of scary. At an average length of 500 words per column, that’s one million, three hundred and twenty-six thousand words (1,326,000), or more than five times the length of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Good heavens. I could have been a literary immortal (or at least Stephen King) instead of arguing over “that” versus “which.”

Oh well, might as well keep digging. Your point is a good one, though your conclusion about the pronunciation of “forte” is open to debate. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at “forte” and “foible.”

There are actually two “fortes” in English, one that we adopted from French, the other from Italian. The French word “fort” (meaning “strong,” from the Latin “fortis”) gave us the “forte” meaning “strong point” or “thing at which a person excels” (“Mr. Selwyn had a forte for horse-racing,” 1870), as well as such common English words as “fort” (meaning “stronghold” or “fortified structure”), “force” and “fortify.” But you’re correct that the first use of this “forte” in English was to mean the strongest part of a sword blade, usually the part closest to the handle. And you’re also right about “foible,” which we adopted from Old French and use today to mean “quirk” or “weak point of one’s character,” but which originally meant the weakest part of a sword blade, usually the half toward the tip. This section was also known as the “feeble,” another word rooted in that Old French “foible.”

The other “forte” is, as I noted, from Italian, and also means “strong,” but is used in English exclusively as a musical term to mean “loud.” This “forte” is also found in the term “pianoforte” (from the Italian “piano e forte,” literally “soft and loud”) of which our modern English “piano” is a shortening.

The Italian musical term “forte” is indisputably pronounced in English, as it would be in Italian, in two syllables with the “e” given a long “a” sound (for-TAY). “Forte” in the sense of “strong point,” however, is from French, and, going by the French model, should be pronounced “fort,” one syllable. (Actually, to be truly faithful to modern French, it should be pronounced “for,” without the “t”.)

Purists over the years have made a point of distinguishing the pronunciations of the two “fortes,” singling out the pronunciation “for-TAY” for “strong point” for condemnation as being at best slightly gauche and at worst a crime against civilization itself. As usual in language correctness campaigns, very few people have been listening, and the pronunciation “for-TAY” is rapidly becoming standard. In fact, 74 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel recently polled preferred the two-syllable “for-TAY” pronunciation. At this point, I’d say that either pronunciation is acceptable, but that more people will understand you if you bite the bullet and say “for-TAY.”

Nuns and Cans

But nobody mentioned the eels.

Dear Word Detective: I recently had to give a presentation on basic navigation to a sailing class, and I was suddenly struck by the names for the channel-markers. I never had noticed them before, but for some reason the more I thought about them the weirder they got.  Green markers are round and called “cans,” which has some measure of reason to it, I suppose.  Red markers are triangular and called “nuns.” Everyone I have asked has been baffled, and numerous books on seamanship have proved useless. A crew of puzzled salts would appreciate your wisdom. — Hannah Upchurch.

Hey, “red, right, return,” am I right? When I was just a wee lad, my parents insisted I take seamanship (as it was then called) classes before being allowed to pilot my little sailboat out onto Long Island Sound alone. That particular mnemonic phrase, meaning to keep the red channel markers to starboard when entering a harbor, is virtually the only thing I remember from those courses.

I had heard channel markers called “cans” before (many of them look like oil drums), but “nuns” is a new one on me. There are, it turns out, two “nuns” in the English language. One is by far the most common, meaning a female member of a religious order, particularly in the Christian church. This “nun” is rooted in the post-Classical Latin “nonna,” which originally was a child’s term of reverence and affection for an older woman, and may be related to “nanny” and “nana.” This sense of “nun” has a number of extended uses, e.g., in the names of birds, moths, shells, etc., that are considered in some respect to resemble the “habit,” or vestments, of a nun.

The other “nun” in English is “nun” meaning “a child’s spinning top,” a use that first appeared in the 16th century, and this is where things start to get strange. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists the term “nun buoy,” first appearing in the early 18th century, and defines it as “A buoy which is circular in the middle and tapering to each end,” which seems to fit the “nun” channel markers in your question. The OED traces the “nun” in “nun buoy” to “nun” in the sense of “child’s top” (which such buoys do resemble) but then declares the logic of that “spinning top” use of “nun” to be a mystery, pointing vaguely in the direction of the religious “nun.”

The simplest explanation of “nun” meaning “top” is that a spinning top might be said to resemble the triangular shape of a nun’s habit, and that may well be the answer to your question about “nun buoys” as well. But there is another intriguing possibility.

The “dreidel” is a four-sided spinning top that is used in Jewish children’s games, especially during the holiday of Hanukkah. Dreidels have also historically been used in adult games of chance. The four sides of the dreidel are marked with letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are said to stand for words spelling inspirational sayings (usually “A great miracle happened there,” referring to one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days in the temple in Jerusalem) or bearing other religious significance. In dreidel games, whichever letter is pointing up after a player spins the dreidel decides whether the player wins the whole pot, half the pot, nothing, or owes the pot. The Hebrew letters on the dreidel are “nun,” “gimel,” “he” and “shin.” Given that the dreidel is a very ancient toy, it seems reasonable to wonder if “nun” as a term for a child’s spinning top might have come from that first Hebrew letter on the dreidel, “nun.”


A bite to remember.

Dear Word Detective:  While traveling through Central Illinois I heard someone use the word “whomperjawed,” as in “Don’t get all whomperjawed on me.” Just curious if there was an origin or popular use at one time for the word. — Brian.

Central Illinois, eh? I was having a bit of trouble picturing what that might be like, since the only bit of that state I’ve experienced is Chicago, so I looked it up (on Wikipedia, so I can only hope the internet isn’t pulling my leg). According to the Wiki-elves, Central Illinois is mostly flat prairie dotted with small towns where the locals grow corn and soybeans and watermelons and gather weekly to worship a variety of pagan gods in bizarre and frightening rituals. Just kidding about that last part. I’m sure it’s just like here in Central Ohio, and everybody worships football (with bizarre and frightening rituals). Incidentally, did you know that the word “rural” comes from the Latin “ruralis,” meaning “of the countryside,” based on “rus,” meaning “country,” which also gave us “rustic”? Now you do.

It’s unclear from the remark you report exactly what the speaker meant by “whomperjawed,” but the two leading candidates would probably be “Don’t start acting aggressive towards me” and “Don’t start acting weird or uncertain; don’t waver.”

If you were to look up “whomperjawed” in a typical dictionary, you’d almost certainly draw a blank. Part of the problem is that the word exists in an unusual and frustrating number of forms, from “wopper-jawed” to “wapperjawed” to even “lopperjawed,” all both with and without hyphens. Even the few dictionaries that do list the word seem uncertain on its meaning; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a 19th century collection of East Anglia (England) dialect as defining “wapper-jaws” as meaning “a wry mouth; a warped jaw,” and a dictionary from 1891 defined it as meaning “a projecting under-jaw.” Taken to mean a jutting jaw and a combative posture, it’s possible that “whopper-jawed” could be used to mean “pugnacious.” This seems to be the sense Mark Twain used in an 1863 letter: “He is a long-legged, bull-headed, whopper-jawed, constructionary monomaniac.”

The more common sense of the word, however, seems to be “out of alignment, askew,” as one might describe something poorly-constructed or dilapidated (“Bill took three months to finish those bookcases, and within a week they were all whopperjawed”). Applied to a person, assuming nothing notable about the person’s jaw, the most likely meaning would be that the subject was acting “weird” or “squirrelly.”

As you’d expect with such an elusive word, the origin of “whopperjawed” is a bit hazy, but the key appears to lie in what is evidently the original form of the term, “wapper-jawed.” This was pretty clearly a development of a much older (16th century) term, “wapper-eyed,” meaning someone who either blinked a lot or whose eyes rolled indicating dizziness.

Wapper-eyed,” in turn, rested on the obsolete English dialect verb “wapper,” meaning “to blink” or “to move unsteadily” (“Wapper-eyed, goggle-eyed, having full rolling Eyes; or looking like one scared; or squinting like a Person overtaken with Liquor,” 1746). The verb “to wapper” may be related to the Dutch “wapperen,” meaning “to swing, oscillate, or waver,” and may also be related to our modern English verb “to wave.”

“Whopperjawed” and its many variants are used today, to the extent that they are, almost always in reference to things that are askew or don’t fit together as they should, and, as far as I can tell, only rarely applied to people, which makes your experience in Central Illinois linguistically intriguing. Perhaps next time you pass by, if it’s not too much trouble, you could ask what the heck they meant by that.