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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Awe / Awful

History makes no sense.

Dear Word Detective: I am a subscriber to the site “Futility Closet” ( I begin each morning with the trivia cocktail, and this morning, besides learning a little about the philological pursuits of Herbert Hoover and his Chinese-speaking wife, I was given this item below the “Misc” heading: “Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms.” Now I do understand a little about “awe” and its connection to “fear” as used in Hebrew texts, but I hoped you might take the time to expound on this little problem in your inimitable way. — John Long, Saint Louis.

Thanks for reminding me about Futility Closet (“A collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible”). It’s a great site. I used to go there every day, but somehow lost the habit. I will endeavor to catch up forthwith.

“Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms” is a pretty good illustration of what sometimes seems like the willful perversity of the English language. Of course, as soon as you object to this sort of nonsense, English smoothly comes up with all sorts of good reasons for the aberration, but still, there’s something shifty about this tongue. Not a language I’d turn my back on.

The word “awe” first appeared in English in the 13th century, based on Scandinavian roots carrying the sense of “fear and terror.” The original meaning of “awe” in English was also “fear, terror, or dread,” but use of the word in reference to religious belief eventually led to a modified sense of “awe” in which “fear” was mixed with veneration, and the result was “awe” meaning “reverential fear and wonder in the presence of supreme authority.” This religious “awe” was, by the 18th century, expanded to include a deep emotional response to extraordinary natural phenomena such as great storms, majestic waterfalls, and electronic gizmos prefixed with the letter “i.”

“Awful” appeared around the same time as “awe,” and originally meant “inspiring great awe,” i.e., causing profound dread or great fear. As “awe” evolved, so did “awful,” gradually coming to mean “deserving great respect” and “inspiring, majestic.”

In the early 19th century, however, “awful” took a sharp detour, and began to be used to mean not “inspiring great dread and humility,” but simply “very bad, scary or loathsome.” This new use, a dilution and weakening from the previous sense, actually drew notice from observers at the time: “In New England many people would call a disagreeable medicine, awful; an ugly woman, an awful looking woman…. This word, however, is never used except in conversation, and is far from being so common in the sea-ports now, as it was some years ago.” (1816).

Both “awful” and “awfully” also came into use around this time, in yet a further weakening, as simple intensifiers that could amplify both positives (“A prairie town called Follansbee that looks awful good to me.” 1923) and negatives (“An awful bad sermon from Hudleston.” 1832).

Interestingly, “awesome,” which appeared in the 16th century meaning “full of awe” or “inspiring awe” (i.e., roughly synonymous with the original “awful”), never took that negative turn, although it lately has been diluted into a tepid synonym of “groovy.”

“Wonder” first appeared in Old English (as “wundor”), derived from Germanic roots, with the meaning of “something that causes astonishment.” In Middle English “wonder” came to also mean the feeling inspired by such “wonders.” The verb “to wonder” at first meant simply “to be affected with wonder; to be astonished” or “to express wonder at something impressive or astonishing.” By the 13th century, “to wonder” had expanded to include “to ask oneself in wonderment,” to express curiosity or doubt, whether mentally or aloud (“I still remained before the fire, wondering and wondering about Bleak House.” Dickens, 1853). But “wonderful,” which appeared in the 12th century, didn’t develop this questioning sense, and has meant basically “inspiring wonder” (or simply “really good”) since that time.

So in the “wonder/wonderful/awe/awful” mix, the expected symmetry is ruined by that strange turn “awful” took back in the 19th century. But such cases of a profound change in meaning are far from rare. A story (probably at least partly apocryphal) is told about Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the time, is said to have proclaimed the design “awful, artificial and amusing.” Rather than being offended, Wren was (goes the story) thrilled with the royal review, because at that time “awful,” of course, meant “awe-inspiring,” “artificial” meant “clever” or “artistic,” and “amusing” meant “fascinating” or “astonishing.”

January 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Oh look, it’s 2014. The future has arrived! Happy New Year. Yay. Last week it was 27 degrees below zero around here, and the past month has furnished a graphic demonstration of why they stopped insulating houses with horse hair. Unfortunately they didn’t stop until a few decades after our house was built in the 1860s. On the bright side, the refrigerator rarely comes on.

Sorry about November. I foolishly accepted an invitation to be the Guest of Honor at some hinky Wodenfest up in the UP, and ended up fleeing from bio-engineered dire wolves chasing me across a frozen hellscape of burnt-out strip malls and abandoned Bitcoin mines. I finally took refuge under the old abandoned UMich campus in a cave occupied by a clan of elderly, un-tenured and very disgruntled adjunct profs who lent a new dimension to “bitter cold.”

Yeah, that’s all I’m gonna say about November. Dreadful month. Always. It’s pure twisted genius that they put Thanksgiving near the end of a month consisting entirely of endless bleak, gloomy days punctuated by icy rain. Me? I’m thankful for me boils, Sir. I’ve named ev’ry one, Sir. This one ‘ere is Nigel. Say ‘ello, Nigel.

December was a blur, probably because it seemed that every time I went outside I managed to fall down. I’m about ready to give up on this whole walking business. I was carrying some groceries in from the car last night when I tripped for no good reason and landed on our concrete walk, nearly bashing my brains out. I am now under strict orders not to go outside without first notifying Management, lest I turn up as a lawn ornament with the Spring thaw.

In any case, I am profoundly grateful for the wonderful folks who have so generously contributed to our upkeep here at Downscale Abbey, where every crisis is welcomed as an old friend and all the servants are played by cats.

By the way, I’m going to have to stop watching that show. We were perched on the settee with our microwave scones and marmite, cats in their little tiaras, all set for the season opener, when we heard Laura Linney say, “And now the two-hour season premiere…” and we both fainted dead away. Actually we just shuddered, but that was enough, and we clicked off. Two hours in that suffocating cultural coat closet? A few days later we watched the first hour of the thing, during which nothing even remotely un-totally-predictable happened, and I, personally, threw in the towel.

Downton really seems to be aimed at the sort of people who get all tingly when they see a Ralph Lauren commercial, a cohort from which I am gladly absent. I actually had occasion to proofread Ralphie’s rather baroque last will and testament many years ago, so I feel a sort of remote kinship for the guy (I surreptitiously wrote myself in as a nephew, in fact), but enough’s enough with the WASPstalgia.

But life, which is to say, of course, television, must go on, and here at Word Detective World Headquarters we’ve been catching up with Homeland. I must admit that the first season was better than I expected. The second season was a bit incoherent, and the shocking finale produced more consternation than shock. We’re just now getting started on season 3, and the whole shebang definitely seems to be coming apart at the seams. Hope I’m wrong.

There does seem to be a problem with cable series reaching a point where all the interesting characters are randomly expunged; I’ve always thought that the Sopranos killing off both Richie Aprile and Big Pussy early on was a huge mistake, and if I’d ever really liked Downton Abbey I’d say that not having the central actors nailed to long contracts was the show’s doom. Now there’s quite literally no one interesting left.

Onward. I’ve been hearing for years that HBO’s The Wire is the best TV show ever made, so I’ve been watching that in small bits here and there. I think they may be right; it is an amazingly well-made show. The second season in particular is a slam-dunk masterpiece. And there’s always Omar. Omar is awesome. I hadn’t realized that Richard Price, one of my favorite novelists (his excellent Clockers was made into a so-so film by Spike Lee), was an advisor/contributor to the show (he actually appears early on in a scene set in a prison library). At the rate I’m watching it, the five seasons may take me ten years, but that’s OK. It beats watching TV.

I imagine that it sounds as if we watch a lot of TV, but we actually log way less than the national average. Name your favorite show and I can practically guarantee I’ve never heard of it. And I like it that way, dagnabbit.

Bookly-speaking, I finished Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge. and I would give it three Mehs on a scale of five. Some nice bits but it never reaches escape velocity. I’m starting to think that his future reputation will rest entirely on Gravity’s Rainbow, a definite outlier in his oeuvre. Hey, outlier and oeuvre in the same clause. Not bad for someone surrounded by frozen soybean fields as far as the eye can see. Anyway, at the moment I’m reading some John LeCarre. I don’t remember the title. Good books with forgettable titles.

So here’s January. Please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to our survival. And now, on with the show….

Squared Away

Ducks in a row, in order of (a) height and (b) astrological sign.

Dear Word Detective: I told my boss something was “squared away” and suddenly wondered where that phrase comes from, and why it’s a good thing for a person, in this case, thing, or situation to be squared away. I fussed around the internet and came away with three options: it means old fashioned as in “square” music; it refers to boxing or wrestling where opponents “square off” against each other, or it’s the dreaded “nautical term” meaning the sails are at right angles to the deck of a ship in relationship to wind direction (or some such) and therefore in good order. Sadly, I want it to be the nautical definition because I just don’t see how getting ready to get pounded to a pulp or twisted into a knot is a good idea.  For that matter I don’t know how one sail position is better than another unless it just satisfies a sense of order, but there you go. That’s those nautical phrases for you. — Victoria Ayers.

Indeed. As a matter of fact, since we’re on the subject, I’ve often thought life would be much simpler if nothing floated. Absolutely nothing at all. If even a feather sank like a stone in water. I imagine ducks would hate it and some fish would be inconvenienced, but I think it would be worth it just for me to never have to type the phrase “of nautical origin” again. Plus which, I imagine the folks on the Titanic would have been much happier staying home: “Ocean voyage? How would that work? Don’t be silly! Smithers, fetch us more nachos.”

Oh well, I’ve just been informed of the appalling amount of paperwork it takes to modify a basic law of physics, so I guess I’ll stick to answering your question.

Our English word “square” first appeared around 1300 as a noun meaning “an implement for determining right angles,” more or less what we would now call a “T-square.” We adapted our word “square” from the Old French “esquire,” which was based on the Latin “ex” (out) plus “quadrare,” make square (from “quadrus,” a square). The use of “square” to mean a geometric shape made of four right angles developed by the end of the 14th century, and a wide variety of other meanings (e.g., a number multiplied by itself) had developed by the 16th century. “Square” also came to mean “a standard or rule; a guiding principle,” in reference to those T-squares used to verify a proper right angle. A “square meal” is one that is nutritious and complete.

Incidentally, our modern English “esquire” is unrelated to that Old French “esquire.” Our “esquire” comes from the Old French “escuyer,” meaning “shield bearer,” an “esquire” originally being a knight’s assistant.

“Square” as a verb appeared in the late 14th century meaning simply “to make square,” but quickly acquired a wide range of figurative meanings. “Square” in the sense of “old fashioned” or “clueless” appeared as slang in the late 1940s, originally designating some geezer who didn’t “get” jazz. The term is said to have come from the rigid hand motions of an orchestra conductor keeping an un-cool traditional four-beat tempo. To “square off” comes from boxing and refers to a fighter adopting a wide stance with arms cocked in preparation for the start of a match.

Meanwhile back at the dreaded “nautical origin” possibility, as of the early 17th century “to square” meant to align the sails at right angles to the keel of a “square-rigged” sailing ship, the optimal arrangement (with the wind from aft, presumably). “Squaring” other parts of the ship’s rigging meant to put them in correct order and position. That would tend to suggest a nautical source of “squared away.” But “to square” had also come to be used to mean “to put in proper order, to reconcile, settle,” as we speak of “squaring” accounts by settling debts, balancing the books, etc. This usage clearly referred back to the use of the noun “square” to mean “guiding principle, proper order,” and had nothing to do with sailing ships.

In any case, the phrase “square away,” meaning “to put in proper order, to tidy up,” first appeared in print in 1909, in a notably non-nautical context (“She had a head on her, Barbie had, an’ when she got squared away, she made ’em all get down an’ scratch”), and has been in wide use ever since. My sense is that while some people may think of sailing ships when they hear it, the phrase itself is more tied to the accounting use of “square” to mean “in proper order.”