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

Run Amuck

Dear Word Detective: I heard from an old salt that the expression “run amuck” comes from losing control of a boat and running a boat aground on the bank and into the “muck.” It makes some sense. – Nick Burford.

Yes, it does make some sense. But I know what makes even more sense. I suggest that we pass a small law making it illegal for anyone who has ever spent more than a week afloat on a boat to spread etymological hooey upon their return from the bounding main. I would especially like to ban all those “Old Salts” (as they often sign their letters) from berating me when I stray from the mission statement of that shadowy sailors’ cabal known as CANOE, the Committee to Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything. Ahoy, maties, “posh,” “brass monkey” and “the whole nine yards” have nothing to do with ships.

And neither does “amuck” have anything to do with running aground. I should say that, as a sailing aficionado in my youth, I had extensive experience with running aground, and spent many unpleasant moments up to my waist in the dark gray goo known as “muck” around Long Island Sound (from the Old Norse “myki,” meaning “cow dung”). Then again, it was preferable to growing up on a farm, where the verb “to muck” means to clean stables, etc., of livestock dung.

“Muck” has also given us several useful modern idioms. “To muck with” something, meaning to tinker, fiddle or interfere with it, dates to the 1920s, and “to muck about” (or “around”), meaning “to goof off or fool around” is actually a relic of the mid-19th century. The irony of that story about boats running aground in muck is that the original “proper” form of word “amuck” in English was “amok,” still often used along with “amock.” And although we often use “run amuck” today to describe small children, for instance, running wild in daycare, the original meaning of the term was quite grim. “Amok” comes from the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” In English, the word “amok” dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between the Malay people and European explorers. The Europeans reported that the Malays were “susceptible to bouts of depression and drug use,” which then led them to engage in murderous rampages known as “running amok.” Of course, it’s likely that the Europeans’ accounts of the phenomenon may have been overly melodramatic and culturally biased, but the word entered English with the same general meaning, that of “murderous frenzy.”


Dear Word Detective: I came across “cock-a-hoop” while reading an article by a British sportsman. I’d appreciate hearing the history behind this combination of words and its use and meaning. – Jayesh.

Thanks for a great question. This reminds me of those “Antiques Roadshow” or “Cash from Trash” TV shows where people invite antique appraisers to take a gander at that weird dusty old thing Aunt Milly always claimed was worth pots of money. Sometimes it is, often it isn’t, but the interesting part is always the explanation of the gizmo (“This was found in every colonial household, usually placed in the doorway to frighten away wolverines.”).

“Cock-a-hoop” is a very old English phrase, dating back to the early 16th century, with two meanings as an adjective in common usage today: “being in a state of elation or boastful high spirits,” and “being askew or crooked.” But the original meaning of “cock-a-hoop” as a verb was a bit livelier – “to drink without restraint; to celebrate drunkenly.” The modern meanings seem easily explained – obviously, drinking without restraint can lead to both high spirits and finding oneself “askew.” Searching for the origin of, and logic behind, “cock-a-hoop” is where the real fun begins. The Oxford English Dictionary, in an unusually long speculation on the etymology of the phrase, calls it: “A phrase of doubtful origin, the history of which has been further obscured by subsequent attempts … to analyze it.”

In other words, people have been proposing theories about “cock-a-hoop” for so long that the trail may have been hopelessly muddied. Probably the most popular theory is that the “cock” of the phrase is the spigot on a keg of ale or liquor (“cock” being a term for “spigot” since the 15th century, possibly referring to the resemblance of a spigot and tap to the head of a rooster). To “cock-a-hoop,” in this theory, originally meant to remove the spigot and place it atop the keg (“on the hoop”), allowing celebrants to drink directly, and without restraint, from the barrel. One of the problems with this theory is that names of pubs featuring other things “on the hoop” (“Falcon on the Hoop,” “Angel on the Hoop,” etc.) were common in England during that period.

Another theory, a bit more plausible to me, suggests that “cock-a-hoop” is simply a transliteration of the French phrase “coq a huppe,” meaning a rooster displaying its crest (“huppe”) in a pose of proud defiance. Thus, “cock-a-hoop” would simply liken a drunken man to a boastful and aggressive rooster. If true, this theory would explain all those other “on the hoop” tavern signs as simply imitations of the original confusion of the French “huppe” with the English “hoop.”


Dear Word Detective: “Dock” is a place to park and obtain access to a boat, what was done to my Schipperke’s tail in order to meet the AKC breed standard, and what a deep dish pizza recipe told me to do to the crust before baking it (stab it gently and repeatedly with a fork). “Dock” might even be a plant, too. Is this coincidence or one of those wild word stories that make reading so much more fun than the stupid TV? – Sarah.

Hmm. Interesting. Am I the only one around here who, upon hearing the word “dock,” automatically thinks “Otis Redding”? Now I have an apparently endless loop of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” playing in my head. Not that I’m complaining, of course. It certainly beats the theme from “Jeopardy.”

Onward. Hey, coincidences can be fun, too, and that’s what we have here, a five-layer historical coincidence. With cheese. There are actually five separate “docks” in English. The oldest is indeed a kind of plant called a “dock,” a term usually applied to members of the genus Rumex, although other species of plants are also called “docks.” This sort of “dock” takes its name from the Old English word for the plant,”docce,” which harks back to a Germanic root and has relatives in several other European languages.

The sort of “docking” done to your dog’s tail is the second oldest use of the word. As a verb meaning “to cut short,” “dock” first appeared in the late 14th century. It was derived from the noun “dock” meaning “fleshy part of an animal’s tail,” which had appeared earlier in the century, apparently derived from a Germanic root meaning “bundle or bunch.” This verb “to dock” is the same one encountered when the boss “docks” your pay.

The third kind of “dock” to appear in English, in the early 16th century, is the sort Otis was sitting on, a wharf or pier for loading or unloading ships and boats. Our modern “dock” had humble beginnings. Originally, borrowed from Germanic roots, the word simply meant the rut or hollow created by a boat lying on a beach at low tide. Some sources trace this “dock” back to the Latin “ducere,” meaning “to lead,” suggesting that the name comes from leading or pulling boats up onto the beach.

“Dock” number four is the little pen in the courtroom where the accused sits during trial in many countries, and comes from the Flemish word “dok,” meaning “rabbit cage.” This “dock” first appeared in English in the late 16th century.

The final “dock” is a cooking term, first used around 1840, meaning “to pierce with holes,” a practice apparently usually employed in baking biscuits to keep them from swelling up in the oven. The origin of this “dock” is a complete mystery, but I suspect it may be related in a roundabout way to “dock” in the “cut short” sense.