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Hit the road.

Dear Word Detective: The phase “to wend one’s [merry] way” has a meaning which appears obvious — kinda. What does the verb “to wend” actually mean and can you “wend” anything other than your way? I hope you can help; I’ve not slept all day worrying about that one. — Andy.

Hi, Andy. Your boss has asked me to ask you to stop by his office before you leave for the day. Apparently the new pillow you ordered has arrived.

wend08.pngIt’s true that “wend” is rarely found today outside the form “wend [one’s] way,” and even then it’s almost always used in a jocular or sarcastic sense (“Jones, perhaps this afternoon you could wend your way back to your desk and do some actual work”). When words come to be used only in such fixed phrases, it’s usually a sign that we’re dealing with a linguistic fossil, as in the case of “deserts” in “just deserts,” derived from the French “deservir,” meaning “to deserve.” This “deserts,” meaning “appropriate reward,” was once common in English, but today is heard almost only in that fixed phrase. (Incidentally, “desert,” the very empty place, comes from the Latin “deserere,” meaning “to abandon,” and “dessert,” post-dinner sweets, comes from the French word “disservir,” meaning “to clear the table.”)

“Wend” is just such a fossil, but, as we shall see, it has some very lively relatives. The source of “wend” is the ancient Germanic root “wand,” meaning “to turn,” which also gave us “wander” (to walk while turning this way and that), “wand” (originally a flexible, easily “turned” stick), and “wind” (to gather up by turning). In Old English, “wend” originally meant “to turn” or “turn over,” and acquired a variety of figurative meanings, ranging from “to change one’s mind” to “to translate” (to “turn” from one language to another) to “to die” (“to wend away”).

By the 13th century, however, “wend” was more often being used to mean “to go or journey in a certain way or direction,” and enjoyed a brief heyday as a popular verb in this sense. But “to wend” was always in competition with “to go,” and eventually “go” won out as the more common verb, leaving “wend” to the poets. “Wend” in fact, nearly disappeared between 1600 and 1800, when it was resurrected in the fixed phrase “to wend one’s way.”

But a final indignity awaited “wend.” Its past tense and participle forms were originally “wende” and “wended” or “wend,” but by around 1200 “wente” and “went” became popular in those roles. But when “wend” began to fade from use around 1500, the word “went” was gradually adopted as the past tense form of “to go” (which is how we use “went” today). From that point on, people who wanted to use “wend” in the past tense had to use “wended,” which is nowhere near as cool as the “went” hijacked by “go.” But, in language as in life, to the victors go (not, you’ll notice, “wend”) the spoils.


Flatfoot Jack and the Fuzz Brigade.

Dear Word Detective: If you were able to get to the bottom of this one you would deserve a medal! In Australia, at least, and, I think, elsewhere, the police are referred to by criminals and other elements of society as “the Jacks.” Long hours of searching and asking questions of other sites has produced exactly zero. How can this be, when the word is so consistently used across the board? Perhaps if you cannot answer my first question, you can answer my second. — Aliki Pavlou

Medal, schmedal. Just send me one of those kangaroo things and a dozen sheep. The roo can do the dishes and the sheep can mow the lawn. They would also give Brownie the Dog (who claims to be part Border Collie) something more tractable to herd than the cats she’s been working with.

“Jacks” as slang for “police” is indeed common in the UK as well as in Australia, but virtually unknown in the US, although “Jacks” may have a close relative in US slang.

jackcop08.pngTo begin at the beginning, “Jack” is what linguists call a hypocoristic (affectionate or “short”) form of the name “John,” derived from the French form of John, “Jacques.” As a slang term, “Jack” has assembled an impressive range of meanings, from “to jack up” (to increase, from the use of “jack” as a mock-personal name for a lifting mechanism) to “jack” meaning “nothing” (as in the eloquent double-negation “You don’t know jack about cars.”).

“Jack” as also been used, since at least the 16th century, as a stand-in for “the common man” or “a fellow,” as in “every man Jack needs a job.” The slang use of “Jack” specifically to mean “police officer” dates to the late 19th century (“A couple of men who were in plain clothes in the tap-room of a public-house, and were suspected by the ‘gaffer’ of being ‘Jacks’,” 1899).

This use of “Jack” to mean “police” seems to have been derived, again as a “short form,” from the use of “John” also as slang for “policeman,” and here things get interesting. This “John” was itself short for “John Darme” a joking Anglicization of “gendarme,” French for “police officer.” So “John Darme” became “John,” which became “Jack” as slang for “cop.”

But wait, it gets better. At least in Australia and New Zealand, “John Hop” was once also slang for “police” via rhyming slang, an underworld “secret language” where the phrase spoken rhymes with the hidden meaning. “John Hop,” of course, rhymes with, and signifies, “cop.” A contraction of “John Hop” (“jonnop”) is still current Australian slang for “police.”

In the US, “John” as slang for “cop” crops up only in “John Law” as the personification of the police and legal system (“We go mooching along the drag, with a sharp lamp out for John Law,” Jack London, 1906). It is possible that “John Law” harks back to the “John Darme” joke, but it may simply spring from the use of “John” in the US since the late 18th century as a personification of the average fellow (“John Q. Public,” etc.), a role now more often filled by “Joe” (as in “Joe Sixpack”).

Fugazy redux

Looking for the real fake.

Dear Word Detective: I just ran across your own old query about “fugazy.” In case it hasn’t been cleared up, see the Wikipedia entry, second paragraph. — Thomas.

Golly, has it been ten years already? Time flies when I haven’t a clue. Well, I guess it’s time for one of those “The story so far” things.

fugazy08.pngBack in 1997, I was writing a weekly column called “City Slang” for the New York Daily News, and my editor, a genially deranged specimen named Jack, had frequent opinions about what words I should explore. One day, Jack went to see the movie “Donnie Brasco,” and noticed a scene in which Johnny Depp, playing an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the mob, tells Al Pacino that a diamond Al is trying to fence is “fugazy,” by which Depp’s character means “fake.” I think Jack may actually have left the theater at that point to call and let me know my next column would be about “fugazy.”

Fast forward a few days, and I had seen the movie myself and talked to everyone I know who might know the term, including cops, experts on the Mafia, and people actually “connected” to the mob. No dice. The only “fugazy” anyone knew was Fugazy Continental, a local limousine rental firm famous for its cheesy commercials in the 1970s and 80s (and now its cheesy website at There were, however, several internet sites that claimed the term was actually US GI slang from the Vietnam War and, properly spelled “fugazi,” an acronym for “Fouled Up (actual expletive scrubbed), Got Ambushed, Zipped In (into a body bag), the worst-case result of a bad firefight. There was also, it turned out, a punk band called Fugazi that cited the supposed GI slang term as the inspiration for its name (as reported on the Wikipedia page you mention). But the GI term, even if legitimate slang (several combat vets wrote me to say they’d never heard it), did not match the sense of “phony” the word carried in the Donnie Brasco script. And the earliest use of “fugazi” in print found so far is from 1980, long after Vietnam.

I reported all this and asked for help from my readers, and over the past ten years I have received emails with tidbits of information and possible sources, but no clear path to “fugazy” (or “fugazi”). Many folks suggested it might be related to the Italian “fugace,” meaning “ephemeral,” but the linguistic “form factors” aren’t quite right. On the other hand, it may have been filtered through Sicilian dialect and its form modified in the process. On the third hand (this is giving me a headache), some of the people connected to the film have said that they simply made up the word, meaning that “fugazy” is a fake word for “fake.” But former FBI agent Joe Pistone, the real life “Donnie Brasco” on whose book the film is based, uses “fugazy” five times in his book, so that (and other testimony by Italian-American correspondents from Brooklyn over the years) indicates that it is real mob slang. So, after ten years, the “fugazy” picture is still clear as mud.

My personal hunch is that “fugazy” is a real mob slang term, and that it began as a mocking reference to the Fugazy Continental limousine service and its low-rent “look like a rich guy” ads. A smooth operator who picks up his date in a Fugazy limousine might impress her for an evening, but sooner or later she’ll realize it’s all an act. As someone who was subjected to Fugazy ads for years, I can certainly testify that I, at least, associated the word with “fake” long before “Donnie Brasco.”