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


All I want for Christmas are my new front teeth.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a kid, the older boys in my south Minneapolis neighborhood spent a lot of time building and riding go-carts. At least, they are called “go-carts” everywhere else in the world, including most of Minneapolis, but in our weird little micro-logoverse, they were called “chugs.” (They were not powered, which may have been implied.) Have you ever come across this, or is this the ultimate in regional dialect? — Charles Anderson.

One of the great things about writing this column is that it gives me a good excuse to relive my childhood. I well remember building, with my friends in the early 60s, various wheeled death-traps we called “go-carts,” even though ours were cobbled together from old packing crates and lacked the engine, steering and brakes of a “real” go-cart (which was probably a good thing). I also vividly remember the day that my friend across the street was given a Thunderbird Junior, a miniature electric car, by business associates of his father (it had a huge Pepsi logo on the side). That car so effectively trumped anything the rest of us could possibly muster that I took up rock collecting a week later.

Speaking of “go-carts,” which we use to mean a very simple, often home-made, racing car with or without an engine, I was surprised to see that the term dates all the way back to the 17th century. It was originally applied to a wheeled wooden frame in which children learned to walk without falling.

“Chug” is a very interesting word, for two reasons. First, although “chug” has, as a noun, a verb, and in combination with other words, produced dozens of varied meanings, it’s a relatively young word. “Chug” first appeared in print as a noun in 1866. Secondly, all the various senses of “chug” refer, in some way, back to its origin, which was onomatopoeic, or “imitative” of a particular sound. In the case of “chug,” the particular sound is a dull, muffled and somewhat explosive sound, a little bit more energetic and mechanical-sounding than a “thud,” but definitely in the same aural ballpark (“The ponderous brother came down upon the floor with a ‘chugg’ that shook the house,” 1866). Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what sound inspired “chug,” it is so often likened in dictionaries to the sound of a steam or internal-combustion engine that it’s reasonable to assume that some sort of engine gave us the word.

The most common use of “chug” is, no doubt, in reference to the sound of an engine, especially a steam engine, such as on a locomotive. Applied to a car engine or some other machinery, “chug” often indicates either that the contraption is under-powered or that the engine is running a bit roughly. “Chug” as a verb is also used, by extension, to mean “moving along slowly but steadily” (“After dinner we hit the road again, and passed Harry about 20 miles up the road, still chugging along in his old Pinto”).

“Chug” has also, in US regional speech and slang, been used to mean “to hit” or “to punch,” or “to throw a heavy object into water,” again referring to the dull sound produced. But the most well-known use of “chug” as a verb is probably to mean “to drink a great quantity (usually of beer, etc.) without pausing.” This “chug” is actually a short form of “chugalug,” meaning the same thing, which is a US coinage dating back to the 1940s. The “alug” in “chugalug” is meaningless, but makes the word perfectly imitative of the sound of someone “chugging” a pitcher of beer (minus the subsequent retching, of course).

The closest I’ve found to the use of “chug” to mean “go-cart” comes from the 1920s, when “chugwagon” was US slang for an automobile (“I could buy and sell guys that’s got three homes and a couple of chugwagons,” Burnett, Little Caesar, 1928). I haven’t found any documentation of “chug” as widespread slang for any sort of homemade car, so I guess you and your Minneapolis friends were a linguistic lost tribe in that regard. “Chug” in that sense does do a good job of evoking the slow and precarious nature of such vehicles; we should probably be glad it never appeared in a newspaper headline.


Worse for wear.

Dear Word Detective: “Shent” is a word my family uses to describe a garment that is worn out, frayed at the edge, threadbare. I can find no reference for this word. Is it a made-up word or does it have some other root? My family is from Yorkshire (England), so there are many local words, often Norse-based. — Christopher Steward.

Thanks for a fascinating question. It also neatly rescued me from answering a question again that I had answered twelve years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Perhaps the person asking it simply wasn’t paying attention that day. Incidentally, did you know that there’s an internet abbreviation for that phrase, “NTTAWWT”? The phrase itself comes from an old Seinfeld episode.

Your family must use some pretty obscure words. Most of the dictionaries I consulted don’t even mention “shent.” (Yes, you may “look things up” in a dictionary, but I “consult” them. It’s a tax thing.) Anyway, the one dictionary that did come through with anything not uselessly cryptic was our old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

According to the OED, “shent” is very much a word, an adjective meaning “disgraced, lost, ruined; stupefied.” The first print citation in the OED for the word, now considered archaic, is from around 1440, and the most recent is from around 1850 (“Till, starting up in wild bewilderment, I do become so shent That I go forth, lest folk misdoubt of it,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

That “ruined” meaning of “shent” would certainly seem to cover the “worn-out, threadbare” sense used by your family, but the history of the word proved to be even more interesting than the word itself. We’ve been talking about an adjective, but “shent” is (or was) also a noun, primarily in Scotland, meaning “disgrace.” According to the OED, this “shent” was actually a variant of “shend,”of the same vintage, meaning “disgrace or ruin.” That noun “shend” came from much older verb “to shend” (appearing around 825), which means, variously, “to disgrace or confuse,” “to blame or scold,” or “to destroy or spoil” (“My papers have been shended and rended and cast to the wind,” Arthur Conan Doyle, 1907). According to the OED, after the 15th century “shend” largely disappeared as a verb and was usually used only in its past participle form, which is (ta da) “shent.” So the adjective your family used may just have been that participle (not that it makes any real difference).

Meanwhile, back at the starting line for all this “shend/shent” business, it all began with the Old English “scendan,” which also produced the form “shond,” which, predictably, also meant “to disgrace or ruin.” Follow the trail even further back, into old Germanic, and you eventually hit the Old Germanic root word “skam,” which not only produced “shend/shent/shond,” but also our more modern and vastly more familiar English word “shame.” So the ultimate root of “shent” carried the general sense of “shame, disgrace or destruction.” There’s some indication that even further back was a root word meaning “to cover,” the logic being that a typical response to personal shame is to cover oneself.

The same family tree also produced our common English word “sham,” meaning “a hoax or trick,” which is thought to have actually originated as a Northern English variant of “shame,” although the logical connection has never been explained.



Dear Word Detective: What happened to the relationship between “appoint” and “disappoint”? They seem to have become estranged. — Doris Render.

Sad, isn’t it? I remember when you’d see them strolling hand-in-hand through the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, texting each other. At least I assume they were texting each other. I wouldn’t know because, brace yourself, I’ve never texted anyone in my life. No, I’m not a neo-luddite. I’ve just developed the knack of becoming bored with things before I’ve done them. Saves pots of time.

So, anyway, my understanding is that “appoint,” a basically positive word, just couldn’t take the negativity of “disappoint” any longer. “Appoint” is actually the older of the pair, first appearing in English in the late 14th century. We adopted “appoint” from the Old French word “apointer,” which in turn was formed on the phrase “a point,” meaning literally “to the point.” “Appoint” also inherited its main senses from the French “apointer.” The first was “to bring matters to a point; to agree,” Most of the uses associated with this sense are now obsolete, but we continue to use the sense of “agree on a time and place for a meeting, etc.” when we speak of a “doctor’s appointment” or an “appointed time and place.”

The second sense was a bit more forceful and less mutual, wherein “appoint” meant “to fix, declare or decree authoritatively.” This sense is used today mostly to mean “to ordain, nominate or establish” a person in a certain office or position, etc. (“The father was empowered to appoint persons of his own choice to be his children’s guardians,” 1883). The third major sense of “appoint” is “to put in suitable and orderly condition; to prepare,” now almost only encountered in the past participle form “appointed” (“Their several Lodgings, which were as well appointed as such a season would permit,” 1664).

“Disappoint” finally showed up in the early 16th century. Although the prefix “dis” in “disappoint,” as usual in English, means “not,” the story of “disappoint” is more than just a simple negation of “appoint” in its various senses. The source of “disappoint” was the French “desappointer,” which meant specifically “to undo an appointment; to deprive of an appointment, office or position; to remove from an office” that had been previously granted by official power (“A Monarch … hath power … to appoint or to disappoint the greatest officers,” 1586).

That specific “clear out your desk” sense of “disappoint” is now obsolete, but it had been quickly generalized and gave us our most common modern sense of the word, “to frustrate the desire or expectations of a person; to defeat a person in the fulfillment of their desire.” Today nearly anything that fails to live up to our hopes and expectations can be said to “disappoint” us (“Ormandy’s CBS album of the Berlioz Requiem.., of which I had high hopes, disappoints,” 1966).

The one other original sense of “appoint” which produced a parallel sense of “disappoint” is that of “agree on a time and place.” Although it often overlaps with the “let down” sense of “disappoint” outlined above, “disappoint” is also used to mean specifically “to break or fail to keep an appointment” or, more broadly, “to undo or frustrate anything previously agreed upon.” This sense does not necessarily imply the “frustrated desire” and emotional letdown of the other sense, only a rupture in an appointment which had been arranged and expected. So if you develop a cold and thereby “disappoint” our plan to go to a dinner theater presentation of “Cats” together, I may very well not feel personally “disappointed” at all.