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Silent / Listen

Ask Roman Castavet.

Dear Word Detective: Since “silent” (a Latin derivative) and “listen” (a Germanic derivative) have a related meaning, and they have all the same letters in a different order, are their origins related? Is it possible that the origin of either word was influenced by the other? — Gunnar.

Wow. I never noticed that. “Silent” and “listen” are anagrams, like in Rosemary’s Baby, which is definitely one of the best horror movies ever made. Really an amazingly good movie. Anyway, an anagram plays a pivotal role in the film. I’ve never been particularly sharp at recognizing anagrams, which I figure has something to do with how my brain is wired (which may also explain why I stink at Scrabble).

An anagram is, of course, a word constructed by rearranging the letters in another word, using all the letters in the first word, each exactly once. The word “anagram” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the French “anagramme,” which is based on the Greek “ana” (up, back) plus “gramma” (letter). Creating and “decoding” anagrams has been popular at least since Ancient Greece, and there are several free anagram generators and decoders available online (my name produces 618 possibilities, including “river moans,” “overarm sin” and “arm version”). “Anagram” itself produces only 16 anagrams, the most interesting of which is probably “agar man.”

The anagram generator at suggests various practical uses for anagrams (safeguarding passwords, picking a career, etc.), but to my knowledge anagrams have never played a significant role in the evolution of a standard English word. And while “silent” and “listen” may be anagrams, they come from two entirely separate sources.

“Listen” first appeared in Old English as “hlysnan” or “lysna,” drawn from the Indo-European root “klu,” which denoted the general idea of “hearing.” (It’s also the root of our English “loud.”) “Listen” has stuck pretty closely to its original meaning of “to hear attentively; to pay attention to” ever since, though it has developed some specialized uses such as “listen in,” which can mean either to listen to a radio broadcast or to eavesdrop on someone’s conversation, and “listen up,” originally a military command to pay close attention to what follows. The “t” in “listen,” by the way, is there because of a popular association with the once common but now obsolete English verb “to list” meaning “to wish, like, desire.” That “list” has nothing to do with the “list” you take shopping (which comes from the French “liste,” meaning “strip, border, hem of cloth, band, etc.”), but it is related to “lust.”

“Silent” first appeared in English in the 16th century with the basic meaning, regarding  people, of “refraining from speech,” and of things, “noiseless.” The source of “silent” is the Latin “silentem,” the participle of the verb “silere,” to be silent. Unfortunately, that’s as far back as the trail goes, although some sources suggest the Germanic verb “anasilan,” which signified a wind dying down, as the source. “Silent” may also be related to the Latin verb “desinere,” meaning “to stop.” Another descendant of that Latin “silere,” the noun “silence,” actually appeared in English more than three centuries earlier than “silent.”

Given that “listen” and “silent” both have clearly-documented roots that have no connection to, and bear no resemblance to, each other, I think it’s safe to say that their anagrammatic nature is purely coincidental. But it’s still kinda cool.


I still subscribe to Modern Moat magazine.

Dear Word Detective: What is a “keep” in reference to a castle? — Helen.

That’s an interesting question. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to live in a castle with a moat and a drawbridge. Given that almost every human culture has built castle-like structures at some time, I suspect that an impregnable home is a basic human desire, especially for folks who suspect that their neighbors might be less than neighborly. I don’t think I would ever have actually mounted the ramparts and poured boiling oil on that obnoxious kid down the street, but it would have been cool to be able to, say, drop water balloons on him and his stupid sister. But we didn’t have the money for a castle, so I had to settle for hiding behind the couch. I think it’s interesting, by the way, that historically the people who could afford castles tended to need them because of the way they got the money to buy the castle. Ironic, eh? With a really good tax lawyer, you could probably even deduct the boiling oil.

Onward. Today we know “keep” primarily as a verb with a wide range of meanings. To “keep” can mean “to preserve; maintain” (“keep safe”), “to fulfill” (“keep a promise”), “to restrain or detain” (“keep home from school”), “to continue” (“keep quiet”), or just plain “to hold on to” (“Bob kept the watch he found in Sam’s couch”). The origin of “keep” in English is a bit mysterious and more than a little strange. Our Modern English “keep” was “cepan” in Old English, but that’s as far back as anyone has been able to trace the word. The odd thing is that “cepan” popped up in written Old English quite suddenly, already carrying many of our modern senses of “keep.” Apparently “cepan” had been in use for a long, long time among the “common people,” but since it wasn’t generally used by the “literary” stratum of society, by the time it finally  appeared in writing it had matured into all those meanings. Of course, this sort of “under the radar” existence was not uncommon in slang and underworld vernacular as recently as the late 20th century, but few of those words have gone on to assume the sort of central role played by “keep.” The advent of the internet, of course, has, for better or worse, made detecting new words and phrases much easier.

“Keep” as a noun has always been a pale shadow of its verb sibling. It first appeared around 1300 meaning “care, attention, notice” (“take keep” was synonymous with “take care,” for instance). And that usage, now largely considered antiquated, has been pretty much it for “keep” as a noun. Except, of course, the castle “keep.”

The “keep” in a castle of the sort built in Medieval Europe was a sort of “safe room,” a fortified tower built into the castle. If the primary fortifications and defenses failed to repel an attacking force, the Important People would skedaddle to the keep, where they could wait for rescue and perhaps feel a twinge of regret at not having been nicer to the peasants. In some castles, the “keep” was simply the heavily-fortified residence of the castle’s owner. This “keep” first appears in print around 1586 (“He, who stood as watche upon the top of the keepe.”), and may have simply been a specialized application of the “care” or “preserving” sense of the noun. But some scholars maintain that this particular “keep” arose as a translation of the Italian term “tenazza,” meaning a fortified tower within a castle, “tenazza” meaning literally “to hold” or “to preserve.” Wikipedia actually has a very interesting article on “keeps” down through the ages  (and offers a different etymology of the term, which I take with a grain of salt).

“Keeps” of the castle sort are just tourist attractions today, but the growth of gated communities and the private security industry proves that some things never change, and royalty will always come with a twinge of foreboding about the peasants.



Dear Word Detective:  My daughter asked me how the term “haywire” came to mean things going nuts or getting crazy. When she looked for it, her resource suggested that’s what happened when the baling wire holding the hay bales together broke and hay flew everywhere. She thought that was too simplistic and said, “Ask your friend, The Word Detective.” So, my friend, is there more to the story of “haywire”? (I could only find “haymaker” in your archives.) — Marsha Orson.

Ah yes, the “Flying Hay” theory, also the source of the expression of surprise “What the hay?” Your daughter has a healthy skepticism, which will, no doubt, come in handy later in life. The world does not, you may have noticed, seem to be getting any smarter, as the internet persists in proving. I often devote columns to debunking silly stories about the origins of words and phrases, and the columns end up on my website, where readers are free to comment. A small but depressing number of folks zip through my explanations and then, in the comments, post as the “true” origin the same silly story I just debunked. I don’t know whether to be more depressed at the probability that they didn’t read the whole column or the possibility that they did.

A column on “haywire” from 2001 is in my archives, although it seems to be weirdly hard to find. But it’s been more than ten years anyway, so I’ll recap.

In its literal sense, “haywire” is thin, springy wire used in baling hay, straw, and other materials. (I actually spent time years ago running a baling machine in a paper recycling plant, so I know about this stuff.) We use “haywire” today most commonly as an adjective to describe something that has ceased to function properly, usually in a dramatic fashion. But the earliest use of the adjective was in the late 19th century to mean “poorly equipped or inefficient,” specifically in reference to a business (often in the derisive term “haywire outfit”). This usage seems to have come from the use of haywire for makeshift repairs to machinery in, for instance, logging camps lacking the proper equipment. (The same sense of “emergency repair” is found in such phrases as  “held together with baling wire and a prayer.”) “Haywire” was also used in this “ad hoc, unreliable” sense to describe any business operation that was poorly-run or marginal (“A haywire, unpredictable, one-man business,” 1959).

The same springy flexibility that makes haywire suitable for emergency mechanical repairs, however, can produce some nasty surprises. When haywire is cut or snaps under pressure, it can instantly whip itself into a tangled mess. (I still have a scar on my arm from an encounter with a baling wire that suddenly snapped 30 years ago.) This propensity to tangle produced the use of “to go haywire” to mean “to suddenly go wrong or break,” especially in a wild or unpredictable fashion, in the early 20th century. A radio that suddenly emits only pops and crackles, a light that turns itself off and on, or a vacuum cleaner that produces clouds of choking dust could all rightly be said to have “gone haywire.”

In the 1930s, “haywire” in this “go wrong” sense was applied, first in the US, to people in a state of confusion or emotional meltdown (“A married man … and absolutely haywire on the subject of another woman,” John O’Hara, 1934). The “snap” of haywire turning from its useful function into a tangled and useless mess also made it a good metaphor for a seriously unbalanced mind (“Some nice homicidal maniac … going all haywire,” 1940). And any larger social  arrangement, from a corporate merger to a wedding to a culture itself (“Architecture has gone haywire. Music is without harmony,” 1962) can also “go haywire.”