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Old-school spooky.

Dear Word Detective: O Grand and Mighty Word Detective, Master of Arcane Linguistic Knowledge! Hear me! …Ahem, sorry. I seem to have been taken over by a touch of the over-dramatic, but then again, it is somewhat related to my question. Perhaps it is because of the Halloween atmosphere right now, but I have suddenly been reminded of being told by one of my Arabic literature professors, some years ago, that the word “macabre” is in fact derived from Arabic, from the word “maqabir,” which is the plural form of “maqbara,” meaning “graveyard.” Now, while I’m generally suspicious of such claims, it does seem pretty enticing: the phonetic and semantic similarity is quite striking, and the explanation offered in my Oxford Concise (“from Danse Macabre ‘dance of death’, from Old French, perhaps from Macabe, ‘a Maccabee’, with reference to a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabees”) actually feels weaker. So, what do you say? Is the Arabic source actually plausible, or is “macabre” more Hanukkah than Halloween? Or is it something else entirely? — Yael.

Halloween already? I guess so. Speaking of which, today we passed some poor schmuck standing on the curb, trying to drum up business for one of those “Halloween Megastores” that pop up in strip malls at this time of the year. He was, of course, in costume, dressed as … wait for it … Gumby! Uh, Gumby? Was there some late-period Gumby movie, maybe “Gumby and the Vampire Chainsaw of Horror,” that I missed? Because otherwise that’s just depressing.

It’s definitely the time of year for all things “macabre,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome; tending to produce horror in a beholder.” The adjective “macabre” has been used in this sense since the late 19th century (“It was the material representation … of the ghastly, the grim, and the macabre which Webster intended,” 1892). “Macabre” can also be a noun, meaning either something macabre or the quality of being macabre (“The macabre of … Baudelaire, gave the impression of decadence,” 1958).

The theory you encountered tying “macabre” to the Arabic “maqabir,” meaning “graveyard” is indeed enticing, and it seems to have been enticing scholars for many years. There was a discussion of just this question on an Arabic linguistic mailing list about ten years ago, in fact. But apparently there are historical problems connecting the two words (the Oxford English Dictionary states bluntly that “there is no evidence” to support that theory), and so most etymologists accept the “Danse Macabre/Maccabees” theory.

The “Maccabees” were a Jewish rebel army who freed Judea from the Greek-Macedonian Seleucid Empire around 164 B.C. and have been celebrated ever since as heroes and martyrs. The deaths of the Maccabees were vividly and gorily described in early religious texts, and eventually reverence for the Maccabees was associated with respect for death in general as well as for Death personified. This was most vividly illustrated in the Middle Ages in Europe by the “Danse Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” a theme in art and literature featuring the classic figure of Death, a skeleton bearing a scythe, leading the living in their dance toward inevitable death. The final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” famously depicts just such a “danse macabre,” and if you’re insufficiently gloomy after seeing that film, you can always check out Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 16th century painting “The Triumph of Death,” in which Death rides a horse and just about everything has gone horribly wrong. It makes great desktop wallpaper, by the way. People who see that on your laptop will not interrupt your work.

The “macabre” of “Danse Macabre” is actually Old French and is thought to have been derived from the Latin “Maccabaeus” (Maccabees) or the Greek form, “Makkabios.” But by the Middle Ages, “macabre” had largely lost its connection to the Maccabees, and few people today even associate the word with the “Dance of Death,” which strikes me as a shame. Halloween ought to be about more than cookie-cutter serial killers and lame pop-cult costumes (Gumby?). The truly “macabre” is the dimension of the deeply creepy and awesomely strange. It’s not just another mechanical “Boo!”

Beyond one’s ken

It’s the unknown unknowns that bite.

Dear Word Detective: “Beyond my ken,” a phrase that shows up from time to time in your columns, seems too-little used these days. The financial crisis alone, with its collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages, should have triggered an avalanche of its use. Assuming it has nothing to do with Barbie’s soul mate, what insight can you provide? Are things ever spoken of as being “within one’s ken”? — Steve Ford.

Hey, lookie there. My spell-checker doesn’t recognize “collateralized.” It’s not often that I envy my computer its innocence. You make a good point about the reluctance of many people to admit that the financial blowup-meltdown-whatsis was, and remains, “beyond their ken.” I was actually surprised back in 2008 at how much I understood about what was going on, but I guess I picked up a lot through osmosis while working at a Wall Street law firm many years ago. Back then they were trying to market derivatives based on credit card receivables, an idea which struck even me, a humble scrivener, as nuts. But that was before they invented credit default swaps, whereby you could win by losing billions. Someone needs to point out that all this chicanery is not, strictly speaking, capitalism.

“Ken” is an interesting little word. It first appeared in Old English as the verb “cennan,” meaning “to make known” or “to cause to know.” “Cennan” was the causative form of the verb “cunnan,” which meant “to know.” That “cunnan” also produced our modern English verb “can” (meaning “to be able to”) and is related to our modern verb “to know.” Incidentally, “can” originally meant simply “to know,” but over time took on the meaning of “to know how to do something,” and eventually acquired the modern sense of “to be able to do something” (“Becky can dance but Bob is hopeless”). The old sense of “can” meaning “to know” can still be found in the adjective “canny” meaning “sharp, wise” (and “cunnan” lives on in our modern “cunning”).

Meanwhile, back at “ken,” the verb “to ken” in modern English originally meant “to make known” or “to teach,” but by the 13th century “to ken” had also come to mean “to recognize or catch sight of” (“And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn, And villager abroad at early toil,” 1771). This sense progressed to include recognizing a particular person and then to be acquainted with someone or something, and so forth, until “to ken” came to mean “to comprehend or understand, to be aware of” just about anything. By this point you’ve probably noticed that “to ken” is now essentially synonymous with “to know,” and are wondering why you’ve never seen it used in any of these senses. That’s because “to ken,” once a mainstay of speech all over Britain, is now used almost exclusively in Scotland.

“Ken” the noun followed an evolution parallel to that of the verb “to ken,” with an interesting detour. The earliest use of “ken” in modern English, in the 16th century, was as a shortening of the Scots word “kenning,” which was a nautical term meaning “the range of ordinary vision at sea,” normally reckoned to be about 20 nautical miles. In later usage, “ken” evolved a broader sense of “range of vision” or “[in] sight or view of a place or thing” (“Tis double death to drowne in ken of shore,” Shakespeare, 1594). Eventually the figurative sense of “view” and “sight” gave “ken” the meaning of “perception or understanding; field of knowledge,” most often encountered today in the phrase “beyond one’s ken,” meaning “outside one’s field of knowledge” or “beyond one’s understanding.”

I’ve been poking around a bit, but so far I’ve been unable to find any published affirmative use of “ken,” as in “Yes, that’s well within my ken; let me explain it to you in short words, with pictures.” I’m sure someone, somewhere has said or written it, but for the most part a “ken” seems to be that area of personal knowledge that never contains answers to the really thorny questions, such as where all the world’s money suddenly went. Perhaps we should worry less about “too big to fail” and more about “too big to ken.”


Take your chances.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the name “RoShamBo” for the rock-paper-scissors game? — Frances.

Really? No kidding. Live and learn. I had honestly never heard it called that. Then again, rock-paper-scissors is one of those games I’m not very good at. I tend to get stuck on “rock” and lose right away. Come to think of it, I’m really not very good at any game that involves hand-waving and the like. I’m the only person I know who’s actually been injured in a game of patty-cake.

According to Wikipedia (motto: “We Am Frequently Correct”), rock-paper-scissors (which I will henceforth call “RPS” to save my sanity) dates back to the Han Dynasty in China (206 B.C.) and is now played everywhere on earth. For the benefit of all you non-earthlings, the Oxford English Dictionary definition is fairly succinct: “A game (used especially to settle petty disputes or as a tiebreaker) in which, at an agreed signal, each participant makes a gesture with one hand representing either a rock, paper, or a pair of scissors, the winner being determined according to an established scheme,” which is usually “rock blunts (beats) scissors, scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock.” There is almost always a three-syllable counting phrase (or just “one, two, three”) chanted during the game, which consists of two warm-up feints and then a third swing of the arm when your choice of R, P or S is displayed. I’m sure there are at least three million YouTube videos demonstrating how it’s done.

There is, interestingly, a World RPS Society, whose website ( offers all sorts of tips on strategy, variants, and the history of the game. The World RPS Society was founded in London in 1842 as the Paper Scissors Stone Club shortly after a law was passed in England declaring an RPS match “between two gentleman acting in good faith” to be a legally binding contract.
In your question you refer to “RoShamBo,” capitalized in such a way as to imply that it’s a sort of acronym for something, but apparently it isn’t, and it’s usually just written “roshambo.” There are two leading theories about the origin of the word.

The simpler of the two theories ties “roshambo” to the Japanese name for the game, “janken,” and to the three-syllable phrase chanted during the game, “Jan-ken-pon” or “Jan-ken-poh.” The Chinese regional dialect version of the name, “jiang jun bo,” may also figure in this theory. If one of these two was the source of “roshambo,” it was probably via a misunderstanding and later modification of the term by English-speakers who didn’t speak either Japanese or Chinese. The phonological change needed to get from the Japanese or Chinese terms to “roshambo” would not necessarily be too long a stretch in such a case. After all, we managed to turn the Mexican Spanish “vaquero” (cowboy) into “buckaroo.”

The other theory about “roshambo” suggests an origin a bit closer to home for those of us in the US. “Roshambo,” goes this theory, is a phonetic form of the French “Rochambeau,” specifically as found in the name of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725–1807). Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur was a general in the French army, best remembered for commanding a force sent to help George Washington’s troops during the American Revolution. According to this theory, RPS was associated with Jean-Baptiste in some fashion, and he (or his soldiers) may have introduced the game to the American colonists, who may have tacked his name onto it in tribute. Or something like that. For a theory, this one is very hazy, but not impossible.

Intriguingly, the first known use of “roshambo” in print was actually in the form “Ro-cham-beau,” which would seem to lend credence to the Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur theory. Unfortunately, that first known use was in 1936, more than a century after Jean-Baptiste’s death, which raises the question of why it took so long for the gratitude of the colonists to manifest itself.

Fortunately, I have my own theory. It’s not much of a theory, and I have absolutely no evidence for it, so caveat lector. My theory is that “roshambo” has nothing to do with anything Jean-Baptiste Yadda Yadda, Comte de Rochambeau did or did not do regarding RPS. I think it came about because American History courses taught to schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries almost certainly required them to learn about Jean-Baptiste and to memorize his name. When, during recess, the children then used RPS to settle a dispute, the ornate three-syllable name “Ro-cham-beau” would have been on their little minds and thus a natural for a counting chant during the game. They could as easily have chanted “Wash-ing-ton,” of course, but “Ro-cham-beau” actually sounds like an exotic magic incantation. And “roshambo” is a lot easier to say than “rock-paper-scissors.”