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[Note: This column appeared in newspapers in December, 2008.]

Dear Word Detective: What are the origins of the word “inauguration”? — Jackie Davis.

Oh look, a topical question, torn, as the teevee people say, from today’s headlines.  I’m sorry, I don’t do topical questions.  It’s a policy I instituted (inaugurated?) years ago, when I noticed that people only wrote to ask me about “turkey” and “Yuletide” in the two or three days preceding Thanksgiving and Christmas, respectively, leaving me no time at all to write columns that would appear before they became irrelevant.  (Yes, I could have invented my own questions on those topics with time to spare, but apparently I’m not that bright.)  Anyway, we’ll be doing “inauguration” sometime in July, so be sure to check back then.  And now, on to “Jack O’ Lantern”!

Oh, all right.  It’s only every four years, after all.  And “inauguration” is actually a very cool word.  The inauguration at hand is, of course, that of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States on January 20th, 2009.

The verb “to inaugurate” means, in its original and still primary sense, “to induct into office in a formal ceremony.”  Since “inaugurate” first appeared in English in the 17th century, it has acquired several more general meanings, including “to cause to begin, especially by marking such beginning with a formal announcement or ceremony” (“The Mayor inaugurated the budget cuts by listing his own desk on eBay”), or “to open to the public with a ceremony,” as a community center might be “inaugurated” with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Presidential inaugurations are occasions of pomp and ceremony, of course, with dignitaries and luminaries as thick on the ground as tourists in Times Square.  But if we were to consider “inauguration” in its original meaning, the pigeons on the roof of the Capitol might be the most important players of the day.  English adopted “inaugurate” from the Latin word “inaugurare,” which also meant “to install in office.”  But the original literal meaning of “inaugurare” was “to foretell the future from the flight of birds.”  The Romans thought it vital that officials not be installed in office until the omens and portents of the future were judged to be favorable, a process that involved watching the flight and feeding patterns of birds (and occasionally examining their entrails).  A Roman “augur” (from “avis,” bird, plus “garrire,” to talk) was a religious official who foretold the future by such means, and we still use “to augur” as a verb to mean “to bode or foretell” (as in “Falling house prices do not augur well for the economy”).

A similar bird-watching trail was followed by the English word “auspice,” (usually found in the plural form “auspices”) meaning “patronage or guidance,” which is based on “avis” plus “specere,” meaning “to look.”

People had pretty much given up looking to birds to foretell the future by the time “inaugurate” appeared in English, although, considering the state of the world at the moment, it may be time to give it another shot.  It’s hard to imagine chickens doing a worse job of running things.

Dry Run

OK, when I say “Go,” flap your arms and run toward the edge.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife has been going through a tough project at work and as part of the work, they were attempting a “dry run” to see if things will work in a test environment.  On a car trip, I had to ask, “What was the origin of  ‘dry run'”?  One of our ideas was it was from plumbing:  to make sure the pipes didn’t leak, they put air in and tested the joints.  Could we be close? — Rich Harrington.

Wow.  Some people actually discuss word and phrase origins while they’re on a road trip?  In our car the dialog seems to focus on questions like “Is that noise coming from our car?” or “Do you smell something burning?”  Other big hits include “Did you see what that guy just did?”, often followed by “How could you not have seen what that guy just did?” and the ever-popular “Maybe I should drive.”  By the way, did you know that the driver of a car has the absolute legal power to determine what music is played in the car?  It’s in the US Constitution.

A “dry run,” of course, is a rehearsal or practice session conducted to make certain that a system works or that a procedure can be carried out without serious mistakes.  While practice may not make perfect, it does make it a lot less likely that you’ll be scanning the help wanted ads the day after your snazzy new escalator pitches your boss into the koi pool.

Of course calling it a “dry run,” rather than just a “practice run” or the like immediately raises the question of why “dry,” and whether there might be such a thing as a “wet run.”   The first citation for “dry run” in the “practice” sense listed by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)  is from 1941, although the OED does list earlier uses of “dry run” to mean a dry creek bed or desert arroyo.  But since no one has ever come up with a plausible scenario linking the two senses we can safely assume that the two uses are unrelated.

As a matter of fact, until just a few years ago, no one had come up with a truly convincing explanation for the origin of “dry run,” and the only theories proposed were halfhearted attempts to connect the phrase to such phrases as “dry heaves” (slang for unproductive vomiting).  But in 2004, Douglas Wilson, a poster to the mailing list of the American Dialect Society (ADS), offered (and, more importantly, documented) what I believe is a slam-dunk answer to the “dry run” question.
It turns out that “dry run” comes from the jargon of fire departments (where a “run” is a dispatch of a fire brigade).

Beginning in the late 19th century, fire departments in the US began conducting practice sessions where engines were dispatched and hoses deployed, but water was not pumped, thus making the exercises literally “dry” runs.  Public exhibitions and competitions between departments also typically centered on such “dry runs.”  Conversely, a real run to a “working fire” where water was pumped was known as a “wet run.”  In his posting to the ADS list, Doug Wilson found instances of this use of “dry run” dating back to 1893.  Just when the term came into more general use meaning “practice session” is uncertain, but it seems to have been after “dry run” was widely used in the US Armed Services during World War II.


Outta here.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word “quit”? — Rex.

That’s a good question.  It’s also a topical question, because I imagine that the number of people “quitting” — voluntarily leaving — their jobs has probably taken a nosedive in the current “economic climate,” as the pundits call the mess we seem to be in.  Incidentally, I dread to think what our actual climate would be if, like the picture of Dorian Gray, it reflected the parlous state of our economy.  I imagine a parched, smoldering desert baking under a merciless sun, the silence punctuated only by screeching of vultures and the screams of consumers who have fallen into the pits of scalding quicksand, the horizon barren except for a faded and scorched sign reading “Ozymandias Securities, LLC.”

OK, back to work. Incidentally, vultures don’t screech. The only sound they make is a loud huffing noise, rather like a bull snorting.  I know because a family of vultures lives right outside my window.  They’re very nice.  We’re pals.

OK, really back to work.  “Quit” is a very old word which has, as very old words often do, a wide range of meanings and platoons of interesting relatives.  It all began with the Latin noun “quies,” which meant, as the Oxford English Dictionary enumerates, “sleep, rest, repose, absence of activity, absence of noise, freedom from disturbance, freedom from anxiety, placidness, serenity, tranquility, peaceful conditions.”  “Quies” produced a derivative verb “quiescere,” (to be still or quiet), and its past participle “quietus” gave us our modern English word “quiet.”

One of the key meanings of “quies” and “quietus” was that of “freedom” from war, anxiety, or debt.  When English first adopted the Anglo-Norman word “quit” (a descendant of “quietus”) in the early 13th century, it was in the sense of “free or released from a debt or obligation,” whether legal, financial or personal.  The verb “to quit,” which developed a bit later, carried the sense of “to set free” in general, but soon developed dozens of specific meanings, from “to repay a debt” to “to release from bondage or debt” to “to prove a person innocent of a crime,” a meaning now handled by the related English word “acquit.”  Other derivatives include “requite,” which originally meant simply “to repay, to return,” but which is now found most commonly in the form “unrequited,” as in “unrequited love,” affection which is not shared by its object.  Even our common English word “quite” is derived from “quit,” and originally meant “absolutely, completely” (“free of any opposition”), but has, since the 19th century, been weakened to mean merely “somewhat” or “moderately” (“The woman has quite a fine face, only she dresses … in a potato sack,” Virginia Woolf, 1915).

The most common sense of “to quit” today, that of “to leave,” arose in the 16th century (“We know our exit, And quit the roome,” 1623).  But “to quit” meaning specifically “to leave, resign or withdraw” from a job, line of work, committee, etc., is more recent, dating to the early 17th century (“He was design’d to the Study of the Law; and had made considerable progress in it, before he quitted that Profession, for this of Poetry,” Dryden, 1680).  The use of “to quit” to mean “to stop doing something” (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.) also first appeared in the 17th century.