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.


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 2006 – 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 © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. 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


Speaking of weirdos.

Dear Word Detective:  This afternoon, while a couple of my friends and I were waiting around before a choir rehearsal, trying to remember the steps to a Baroque dance we had learned this summer, somebody sat down at the piano and started playing a piece by Kabalevsky which we supposed was a gymnopedie.  We began speculating on the origins of “gymnopedie,” which seemed like a funny thing to call a quiet piece of music.  The best we could guess was that it had something to do with “gymnos,” which is Greek for “unclothed,” but we couldn’t imagine what.  Please enlighten some etymologically puzzled musicians.– Elizabeth  Lightwood.

Good question, and thanks for the opportunity to add “gymnopedie” to my spell checker’s dictionary.  And “Kabalevsky,” of course, which for some reason it wants to change to my choice of “Lobachevsky” or “Dostoevsky.”  Typical.  I notice it’s not throwing a fit over “Madonna” or  “The Beatles.”  I guess I should give it credit for recognizing Lobachevsky, but that’s probably just because it was programmed by math weirdos.  Huh.  It seems to like “weirdo.”  I rest my case.

Steinlein-chatnoirSpeaking of omissions, I was mildly surprised that you asked a question about “gymnopedie” and didn’t mention the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).  As musicians, you and your friends are doubtlessly acquainted with Satie’s three “Gymnopedies,” quiet and impressionistic solo piano pieces published beginning in 1888 and probably Satie’s best-known works.  What I guess is less well-known is that Satie seems to have invented the term “gymnopedie” himself.  But it’s not entirely clear what he meant by it.  There have been, in fact, scholarly papers written debating exactly how Satie came up with the word.

Satie was, by all accounts, a strange but clever duck.  A famous anecdote, probably at least partly apocryphal, recounts the aspiring composer’s first visit, in 1887, to Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) nightclub, at that time the epicenter of the Paris musical scene.  According to the story, Satie, lacking any artistic reputation at that point, arranged for his arrival to be announced by a friend with the words “Erik Satie, gymnopediste.”  Rodolphe Salis, Le Chat Noir’s formidable proprietor, is said to have been temporarily taken aback, finally responding, “That’s quite an occupation.”

Satie’s purported occupation was indeed impressive.  The “Gymnopaedia” were dances performed at festivals in Ancient Greece by young men bereft, for the occasion, of clothing (“gymnos,” naked, plus “pais,” youth).  That’s the same “gymnos,” by the way, that gave us “gymnasium,” after the Ancient Greek habit of exercising in the buff.

Satie picked the word to impress the crowd, which it certainly did, but what, if anything, he meant by it is a mystery.  Satie’s friend Contamine de Latour had recently used the term “Gymnopaedia” in a poem Satie would likely have read, and any musical scholar would have been familiar with the ancient dances.  Most likely, Satie simply chose the term for its absurdity and risque overtones.

Taken with his own invention, and perhaps pushing the shtick a bit, the following year Satie published the first of his three “Gymnopedies,” the piano pieces which brought him the fame he craved and remain immensely popular today.  Incidentally, a nice video from ABC Classics which uses Gymnopedie No. 1 as its score can be found by searching YouTube for “The Colours of Autumn – Gymnopedie No.1″ or just click here

Parting shot / Parthian shot

A stand-in that fills the bill.

Dear Word Detective:  In many a novel I’ve read of people delivering a “parting shot” in the form of “a threat, insult, condemnation, sarcastic retort, or the like, uttered upon leaving.”   Imagine my surprise when I recently started reading the Sherlock Holmes novels for the first time (rather than watching a movie) and found the famous detective firing a “Parthian shot” instead! (“With which Parthian shot he walked away, leaving the two rivals open-mouthed behind him.” — A Study in Scarlet)  I immediately consulted with my trusty 1960s Watson — er, Webster — where I found the second phrase explained.  Apparently, the ancient Parthian archers were famous for a particular horseback maneuver in which they feigned a retreat, then fired backward at the pursuing enemy.  As a longtime reader of your columns, I smelled folk etymology right away.  Obviously, “parting shot” had to be a corruption of “Parthian shot,” right? But when I later looked up the matter on the Internet, I became doubtful. It seems that the chronological order of the appearance of the two phrases is not quite clear.  But since my sources are by no means reliable (Wikipedia, for one), I turn to you for enlightenment.  Surely you, the original Word Detective, could outwit even the great Holmes any time when it comes to word origins. So for your capacity, this small puzzle can be nothing more than elementary.  Right? — Holger Maertens, Germany.

Gosh, I love it when people write my column for me.  I don’t suppose I could get away with simply saying “Yes” at this point, could I?  By the way, Sherlock Holmes in print beats the best movie (or TV) versions by a mile.

With the game well afoot through your detailed exposition, I need only note that the Parthians were the residents of Parthia, an ancient kingdom in what is now Iran, and Parthian horsemen really were famed for their “Parthian shot” fired while turning to retreat.  “Parthian shot” has been used in a figurative sense to mean “a final insult or point of argument made as one is leaving” since the mid-19th century.

“Parting shot,” meaning the same thing and based on the sense of “parting” as a noun meaning “the action of leaving,” also dates to the mid-19th century.  The underlying sense of “a last remark on your way out the door” is older, however, as “parting blow” is found as early as the 16th century (“Thus much I must say for a parting blow,” 1592).

What we have here, I suspect, is a very convenient coincidence.  Given the spotty record  of 19th century printed sources, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty which phrase appeared first, although most authorities assume that “Parthian shot” was the original form.  But even in the 19th century, people who knew who the Parthians were and thus truly understood the reference must have been fairly rare, and as the history of the Middle East became more obscure even among educated English speakers in the West, “parting” stepped up to fill the vacancy.  This was, as you guessed, a classic case of folk etymology, where a more familiar word is substituted for a word in a phrase which is no longer (or never was) understood by its speakers.  Our word “bridegroom,” for instance, was originally “brydguma,” meaning literally “bride-man.”  But as the Old English “guma” (man) faded from the popular vocabulary, the more recent and thus familiar “groom” (meaning “male servant”) was substituted.   The fact that “parting shot” fit  so well with both the sound and the “while leaving” sense of “Parthian shot” made the process unusually seamless.


Oh look.  It clumps.  We’ll change our name to Arm & Leg.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m wondering how the word “litter” came to mean two things that are pretty much opposites: something tossed away (such as litter on the highway), and something you pick up and carry with you (as paramedics do for patients; as slaves do for kings).  My husband added a third meaning, lest we forget: “litter” can mean a whole bunch of baby animals born from the same pregnancy.  Any clue as to how one word came to mean so much, including its own opposite? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Speaking of “litter,” you folks forgot “kitty litter.”  Incidentally, people complain about how much money investment bankers, corporate CEOs, et al., make, and rightly so.  But for sheer brazen banditry, those muggs can’t hold a candle to the cat litter cartel. They take a truckload of clay, douse it in perfume, stick it in boxes sporting a picture of a cute (and apparently ecstatically continent) cat, and sell each box for what dinner in a decent restaurant used to cost you before you spent all your money on cat litter.

Onward.  Whenever you run across a word with as many different meanings as “litter” seems to have, there are two possibilities.  The first is that it’s actually all the same word, with one (usually very long) history, and that over the years it has sprouted all sorts of disparate (and even contradictory) meanings.  The other possibility is that all (or at least some) of those meanings of “litter” actually belong to separate words, with separate histories, that just all happen to be spelled “litter.”  That may sound unlikely, but it’s not uncommon.  There are, for instance, five entirely unrelated “docks” in the English language.

If “litter” were, in fact, five different words, all those meanings would be a bit simpler to explain.  But all those kinds of “litter” are actually one very versatile little word.

In the beginning was the Latin noun “lectus,” which meant “bed.”  Filtered through the Old French “litiere,” it arrived in English as “litter” around 1300, still with the basic meaning of “bed.”  One of its earliest derivative meanings was “litter” in the sense of “a couch for the transport of the nobility carried by servants” as well as a similar, but more humble, version for the transport of the sick or wounded.

In the 15th century, “litter” came to mean “straw or similar material gathered for bedding” for humans or scattered on the floor as bedding for animals. This sense of “stuff thrown on the floor” eventually, in the 18th century, gave us “litter” meaning “rubbish or odds and ends scattered or strewn about,” but didn’t produce the noun “littering” until 1960.  “Litterbug,” meaning a chronic litterer, first appeared in 1947 and was enormously popular when I was young, but now seems to have almost completely faded away.

The “bedding for animals” sense of “litter” also gave us “litter” meaning “number of animals born together,” the original sense being that they were born “in one litter,” i.e., in the same bed at the same time.  “Cat litter,” a term which appeared in the 1950s, is an extension of “litter” meaning “a jumble of odds and ends used as accommodation for animals.”  Of course, in recent years it has also come to mean “gold mine.”