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


Besides, the last time I tried, something growled at me from the corner

Dear Word Detective:  As I was tidying up my desk, I stopped to ponder the word “tidy.” It means “neat and orderly” but it can also mean a considerable amount of something, as in “she inherited a tidy sum of money.”  Wouldn’t that be nice?  The dictionary says that it comes from “tidi” meaning “in season or healthy.”  Can you shed some light into this history? — Margherita.

Why, sure.  Incidentally, you and I are birds of a feather.  I’ve been attempting to tidy up my desk (the whole office, actually) for years, but I never get very far before the pondering sets in and my tidying grinds to an untidy halt.  I think my main problem is the books.  I get halfway down a stack and suddenly remember something especially good in one of them and go looking for it, and that’s it for the day.  Maybe I should take my glasses off before I try to tidy up.

“Tidy” is an interesting little word, and though all our modern English words have evolved at least a little over the course of the centuries, “tidy” has been more peripatetic than most.

The root of “tidy” is the prehistoric Germanic root “tidiz,” meaning “time,” more precisely “a specific portion of time.”  That Germanic “tidiz” is also the source of our modern English word “time” as well as of “tide.”  Although we think of “tide” today as meaning the cyclical rise and fall of the sea, that meaning only arose in the 14th century, and originally “tide” meant simply “time” or “season.”  This is the sense preserved in words such as “Yuletide,” meaning the Christmas season.  The reason for that side trip into “tide” is that “tidy” is essentially simply an adverbial form of “tide” in the old “time” sense.  Thus, when “tidy” first appeared in English in the 13th century, it meant “at the proper time,” i.e., “timely,” “in season” (and therefore “healthy”), or “opportune” (and therefore “excellent”).

That sense of “tidy” meaning “excellent” then evolved into meaning “of good character, brave, worthy,” but by the 19th century had been diluted to meaning “pretty good” or “pretty big,” a sense we still use in speaking of a “tidy” fortune, not billions but enough to live on comfortably.

Applied to persons, “tidy” during the 18th century meant “neat in dress or habits,” and applied to a household, “neatly arranged and in proper order” (“There was not a neater, more scrupulously tidy, or more punctiliously ordered house in Clerkenwell,” Dickens, 1840).  This is the adjective sense of “tidy” that gave us, in the 19th century, the verb “to tidy,” meaning “to make clean and orderly, to arrange neatly.”  So “tidy,” a word that originally meant “at the proper time,” came to mean “neat and clean.”


Poets in power ties?

Dear Word Detective:  When most people are looking for work they are trying to “get hired,” but when a musician or band is looking for employment, they are trying to get a “gig.”  What gives?  Where did “gig” come from? — Ron J.

Dude, get with the program.  Every job is a “gig” today.  Calling your job a “gig” is a way of saying “I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.”  And it’s not just laconic “baristas” at Starbucks.  I’ve heard corporate lawyers describe their positions as “gigs.” Personally, if I had a job that paid a half-million a year, I’d superglue myself to that “gig.”

Considering that it’s such a short little word, you certainly get your money’s worth with “gig.”  Counting both noun and verb forms, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists and defines thirteen separate “gigs.”  Some of these “gigs” are clearly related, but the trick is figuring out exactly how.  “Gig” is a tricky little word, and, as the OED notes, “the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.”

The first incarnation of “gig,” around 1225, was to mean “a flighty, giddy girl,” although this sense may well have been based on an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “something that spins or whirls” (as later found in “whirligig”).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gig” may be onomatopoeic or “imitative” in origin, meaning that the word itself was meant to suggest something small that whirls.  This sense of “gig” later came to also mean “an odd person, a fool” as well as “a joke” or “a state of boisterous merriment and fun” (“in high gig”).

Another sense of “gig” appeared in the 18th century meaning “light one-horse carriage,” perhaps based on the “bouncing, whirling” sense of the earlier “gig.”  The same word was later applied to a small boat used to ferry crew to a larger ship, and a small spear used to catch fish was also called a “gig,” although the connection of this to other “gigs” is unclear.  Is it just me, or is this a lot like wandering through a darkened room, stumbling over furniture?

In any case, we now arrive at 1926 and the first recorded appearance of “gig” in print in the “musical engagement” sense.  The OED (and all other major dictionaries) label this usage as “origin unknown,” but there seem to be two theories.  One traces this use to an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “a gambling bet” (possibly from the use of a spinning wheel in some original “gig” game), which then was generalized to mean “a business undertaking,” and then applied to a musical performance.

The other, which I tend to favor, ties “gig” in the musical engagement sense to the original “spinning” meaning of the word, perhaps influenced by the Old French “gigue,” meaning “dance,” which also gave us “jig.”  Since playing at dances is how most musicians in history have made their livings, the use of “gig” to mean such a job makes perfect sense.

Hell in a Handbasket

Doom express.

Dear Word Detective:  Why do we say that someone is “going to Hell in a handbasket”?  Why a “handbasket”?  What exactly does the full expression mean? — Sharm.

Well, it means that person is in a heap o’ trouble, on a slippery slope, circling the drain and on the road to perdition.  But before we all get to gloating, we should note that a lot of us seem to be “handbasketeers” today.  A quick search of Google News turns up more than 300 recent news media uses of “hell in a handbasket,” including this cheery note from the New York Daily News: “The economy is going down the drain, the cost of living is going through the roof, and low-income New Yorkers are going to hell in a handbasket” (July 11, 2008).  And things are no better Down Under, to judge from the Australian newspaper The Age: “It’s hell in a handbasket time, or so it seems judging by the recent rush of bad news on all fronts” (July 20, 2008).  It looks like buying stock in a handbasket manufacturer may be your best bet at this point.

I first tackled this question back in 1996, with limited success.  Unfortunately, the origin of “going to hell in a handbasket,” meaning “to deteriorate, especially rapidly,” hasn’t become any more certain in the years since.  We do know that the phrase is an American invention, and that it first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1865:  “Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.'”

The question, of course, is “why a handbasket”?  Is there something particularly diabolical about handbaskets (small baskets with handles, usually used for carrying fruit or flowers) that makes them suitable for conveying one to Hades?  The answer appears to be no, since “going to hell in a handcart” seems to be a popular variant in Britain, and “going to hell in a bucket” is popular on the internet (as well as a wide variety of lame puns such as “going to hell in a Hummer” and “in a handbag”).

I think the addition of “in a handbasket” (or “handcart”) served two purposes.  The first is simple alliteration, always a good way to make a phrase catchy and memorable.  The second, the idea of being carried to hell in a basket or cart, makes the journey more concrete in the listener’s mind, since “go to hell” by itself is a worn phrase hardly anyone takes literally anymore.  The basket or cart also implies swift and irrevocable transport to doom.