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


But does the Jolly Green Giant smell like the produce section?

Dear Word Detective:  My late Aunt Thelma used to say “fum” instead of “smell,” like in “You fum good” or “Supper fums good.” We thought it was an old family joke or something, but I’ve been wondering lately, could it be an old expression related to “fumes”? Her generation of the family (from Scotland and Wales) used lots of old words that people look at me like I’m a lunatic for using now. — Nancy.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? When you’re a little kid, you hear people around you using all sorts of words, and you figure out what most of them mean from context (e.g., an “uncle” is a strange man who appears several times a year to tell stupid jokes). Then, as you grow up and move away from home, you discover that most of the people you meet have never heard of a lot of those words, and you (and your new friends) begin to wonder whether you were, in fact, raised by Martians. My mother, for instance, used to speak of someone having a “scunner” against someone else, by which she seemed to mean “a grudge.” It wasn’t until I used the word to several people many years later and got puzzled looks in return that I actually looked  it up and discovered that “scunner” is a Scots dialect word meaning, yes, “a grudge or dislike.” It comes from the verb “to scunner” (to flinch or feel disgust), which dates back to the 15th century and may be connected to either “to shun” or “to scare.” So your hunch that your Aunt Thelma wasn’t just making up nonsense words is probably justified.

The best-known use of the word “fum” is probably in the refrain “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread” recited by one of the giants in the ancient English folk tale “Jack the Giant Killer.” The tale (which is obviously related to but more complex than “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which also contains the refrain) exists in many versions, and was so well-known by 1605 that Shakespeare gave it a shout-out in King Lear (“Child Roland to the dark tower came, His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum, I smell the blood of a British man.”).

But while the giant’s rhyme seems to connect “fum” to the sense of smell, and your Aunt probably knew it by heart as most children once did, it doesn’t necessarily mean that “fum” as she used it came from the tale. Browsing through the two dictionaries of Scots dialect I own (which come in handy more often than you’d think), it seems that the only meaning listed for “fum” is “a useless, slovenly woman,” which isn’t very helpful on any count. But “fume” is defined as “a scent or fragrance,” which does put us back on track. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sense of the verb “to fume” as “Of food, wine, etc.: To rise as fumes (to or into the head),” which also fits with your Aunt’s use of “fum” to mean “to smell.”

The only hurdle to pronouncing Aunt Thelma’s “fum” simply a use of “fume” in this sense is, obviously, the usual pronunciation of “fume” as “fyoom.” (I’m assuming here that she pronounced “fum” as “fuhm” with no “y” sound.) But it’s not uncommon for a word to change its  sound in dialectical usage, and the usual use of “fume” in a negative sense may actually have contributed to a changed pronunciation for the positive “fum” sense. Perhaps it even came to be regarded as a separate word, i.e., “noxious fumes” versus “nice fum.” It’s also possible that the giant’s “Fee-fi-fo-fum” rhyme from “Jack the Giant Killer” influenced the change. In any case, I’d say that it’s highly likely that your hunch was correct, and your aunt was actually using a specialized sense of our modern word “fume.”


That ain’t right.

Dear Word Detective:  Mom (born 1932) was from Central New York (Otsego and Cayuga Counties) and used an expression whenever something was crooked or misaligned — an example being a skirt whose zipper in the back meandered to the side from normal wear. I don’t know how to spell this, but she pronounced it “squee jaw.” Anyone recognize this? — LadyMayflower.

Anyone? Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller? Oh wait, it’s just me here. I used to have an imaginary assistant named Edith Freedle, but when readers began writing to complain that I was mistreating her (dispatching her to sit at dull book festivals in my place, for instance), I had to let her go. It was sad, but she lives in Florida now, in one of those humongous cookie-cutter developments where people all ride around in golf carts. She married a retired chiropodist and sends me funny videos of talking cats. Seems pretty happy for someone living in hell.

Gosh, second paragraph already? Better get to work. “Squeejaw” (apparently it’s one word) turns out to be a remarkably uncommon word, at least these days. It’s not listed in any mainstream dictionary I own, and even the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, my go-to guide to weird folk sayings, has apparently never noticed it. It does crop up in several “user-generated” online dictionaries, defined as meaning “crooked” or “cockeyed,” pretty much as your mother used it. But these sites, not surprisingly, don’t offer any hint of where the word came from or how it came to mean “crooked.”

Fortunately, there is a publication, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), whose sole mission is to catalog and trace just this sort of obscure term, and after a bit of digging in DARE, I hit pay dirt. I’m very lucky I persisted, because DARE is a work in progress, and the most recent volume only covers up to “Sk,” somewhat shy of the “Sq” of ‘squeejaw.” But poking around in the “Sk” pages, I found, lo and behold, “squeejaw.”

“Squeejaw,” it turns out, is one of many variants of the term “skew-jaw” or “skewjawed,” “skew” meaning “crooked, misshapen, diagonal, distorted, rickety or wrong” applied to a thing, or “confused, peculiar or awkward” applied to a person. The particular form “squeejawed” turned up in 1950 in an answer to a regional language survey question posed to Wisconsin residents (“When a collar or other clothing works itself up out of place you say it’s …”), so it’s definitely the same term your mother used. According to DARE, the geographic distribution of “skew,” “squee” and other variants (“screw,” “skee,” etc.) includes, apart from the upper Midwest, central and upstate New York.

The “skew” that apparently underlies the first part of “squeejaw” seems to be the common English adjective meaning “at a slant, out of alignment,” more commonly seen in the form “askew.” The “jaw” part is a bit more mysterious. A similar term, “whopperjawed,” has  roots in the dialects of England and means both someone with a crooked or prominent jaw and something that is poorly built and crooked. So the “jaw” of “squeejaw” may have originally literally referred to a person’s misshapen jaw. But variants of “squeejaw,” “skewjaw,” etc., substitute “jay,” “gaw” or “haw” for “jaw,” so there’s a good chance that “jaw” doesn’t really mean much of anything. In Iowa, for instance, a player who makes a flubbed, wobbly shot in a game of marbles is said to be “shooting screw jay.” With so many variations on this theme out there “in the wild,” it’s probably impossible to pin down which came first, but at least we know that your mother’s “squeejaw” came from a very large and popular family.

Forgo, Forego, et al.

With all thy going, get lost.

Dear Word Detective: In the midst of composing an email in which I used the words “foregoing,” “forgive,” and “therefore,” I am wondering whether I should have used “forgoing” seeing as I mean “to go without,” and, secondly, whether “for” and “fore” have any relationship and how they came to be used in such ways. — Danny.

That’s a good question. Or two. Actually, depending on how you look at it, it might be  four or eight questions, and that’s not counting that you left out “therefor,” which is a separate word from “therefore.” I may think of others before we’re done. Anybody want more coffee?

If you were to set out to prove that the English language is a tricky racket (which it is), a good place to start would be with the words “foregoing” and “forgoing,” or, as we will here, with the basic forms “to forgo” and “to forego.” The two words have a lot in common, and there’s the rub. Both first appeared in Old English (as “forgan” and “foregan,” the “gan” meaning “go”), and in both words the “go” is our common English verb “to go,” meaning “to move or proceed.” The difference comes in the prefixes of the two words, “for” and “fore,” which differ by only one letter. “Fore” and “for” spring from the same Germanic root meaning “before,” but the two diverged in meaning in Middle English.

The prefix “for” generally carries a negative connotation, expressing senses of “away,” “rejection,” or “off” (as in “forget”), a connotation of prohibition or exclusion (as in “forbid”), a sense of totality or completeness (as in “forgive”), or expressing abstention or neglect, which brings us to “forgo.” The original meaning of “forgo” was simply “to go past or pass over,” both literally (as in bypassing a town) or, figuratively, to neglect, avoid or ignore. This eventually developed into our modern sense of “to go without, abstain from, deny to oneself, etc.” (“The Pleasures are to be foregone, and the Pains accepted,” 1749).

“Fore” as a prefix carries the general sense of “before” (e.g., “forewarn”) or “at the front of,” either in physical space or time (e.g., “forehead”), as well as senses of “preceding” (“forefathers”) and “superior” (“foreman”). “Forego” therefore means simply “to precede, either in position or time.” In practical use you’re most likely to see “forego” in the forms “foregoing” meaning “preceding” (“Bob decided to ignore their foregoing argument and try to work with Sam”) or “foregone” in the sense of “already done or settled” (“The jury was out only ten minutes because their verdict was a foregone conclusion”).

Incidentally, the tenses of both “forgo” and “forego” follow those of “go” itself, so you have “forwent” and “forgone” (“Ted had forgone dinner but regretted it around midnight”), as well as “forewent” and “foregone.” I am also duty-bound to note that “forgo,” meaning “to abstain from,” etc., can also be (but fortunately almost never is) properly spelled “forego.” Don’t ask. English is weird. But “forego” (to precede) cannot be spelled “forgo,” so there’s that.

I said that “therefore” and “therefor” were separate words, and they do have different meanings, but they’re really the same word. Spelled “therefor,” it means “for that thing, act, etc.” (“He shall supply a copy of such report … on payment of the sum of one shilling therefor,” 1885) or “for that reason” (“Tell Briggs that his ticket came safely, and that I am thankful therefor,” 1848). Spelled “therefore,” it means “in consequence of that” or “that being so” (“The Franks were the stronger, and therefore the masters,” 1845).