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Lather, rinse, revulsion.

Dear Word Detective:  My sister recently recommended to me a product that has to be in the running for the worst product name of all time — “No-Poo,” a chemical-free shampoo.  Contemplating the name got me to thinking about the origin of the word “shampoo.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Hindi for “to press,” but that hardly explains how such an odd-sounding word came to be used for such an everyday item.  Can you please elucidate? — Jackie.

Well, there you go.  Who needs CNN?  All I have to do is read my email and I learn all sorts of things I’d never have otherwise known about.  I just Googled “no-poo” and discovered that there is, evidently, a widespread semi-underground “no poo” movement to eschew shampoo, promoted by people who believe that the chemicals in commercial shampoos are harmful to both your scalp and the planet.  The most popular substitute for shampoo seems to be a concoction made with baking soda and vinegar, and the commercial “No Poo” product your sister endorsed is probably a variant on that mixture.  I’d give no-pooing a shot myself, but I’m a bit put off by this warning from MSNBC:  “In the beginning stages of a no-poo experiment, most people seem to go through a two- to six-week period when their hair looks like, well, poo.”  After that, presumably, your hair looks great but your friends are hiding from you.  Maybe I’ll just shave my head.

It is true that the root of our modern “shampoo” is the Hindi word “campo” (or “champo”) which is the imperative form of the verb “campna” (or “champna”), meaning “to press.”  As far as we know, the word “shampoo” first appeared in print in English in 1762, and the tone of that first use is interesting: “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.”  The reason the writer was somewhat anxious is that the original “shampoo” involved much more than the hair.  It was a full-body deep massage, apparently involving quite forceful rubbing and kneading of the limbs and torso (thus the relevance of “to press”), administered as part of the standard Turkish bath routine.  Only at the end of the process was the shampoo-ee’s hair washed.

The word “shampoo” was brought back to England in accounts of British colonial life in India, but the custom of beginning one’s day with a full “shampoo” was understandably a non-starter in Britain.  So by the early 19th century “shampoo” had been narrowed to its current modern senses of simply “the act of washing the hair with a cleaning agent” or “the soap, etc., used to clean one’s hair.”

Interestingly, there was an earlier (but now obsolete) term in English, a bit closer transliteration of the original Hindi “champo,” which was “champing,” meaning the whole full-body “shampoo.”  The earliest use of this term found so far in print, from 1698, mentions a mechanical massage apparatus noted by Western travelers in China: “A kind of Instrument, called, in China, a Champing Instrument.  Its use is to be [rubbed] or [rolled] over the Muscular Flesh.”  The term “champing” may be gone, but I believe the same sort of gizmo can still be seen today in late-night TV infomercials.


Awesome.  Will it work with American Idol?

Dear Word Detective:  I know that “vanish” seems like such a simple word; but somewhere between 1967 (when I was in high school and my dictionary was published) and 1983, this simple intransitive verb became transitive.  It was in 1983 that David Copperfield “vanished” the Statue of Liberty.  That was the first I had ever heard it used transitively, and I am curious when the transitive use first appeared. — Charles Anderson.

Whoa.  1983?  We need to get you a new dictionary.  It’s true that most of the really useful words are in your trusty old friend, and I totally understand loyalty to old books.  I still use the Latin dictionary I was given in high school.  But the great thing about Latin is that they’re not adding many new words to it.  That’s not true in English, where new words and new uses for old words are popping up like worms on the sidewalk after a rainstorm.  Good heavens, man, don’t you want to be able to look up “crowdsource” and “googlebomb”?  “Moofing”?  “Unfriend”?  “Overshare”?  Yeah, me neither.  Wake me when we go back to Latin.

I must have slept through Mr. Copperfield’s “vanishing” of the Statue of Liberty in 1983 (I’m assuming he eventually put it back), as well as whatever usage the transitive “vanish” has enjoyed since, because here in 2009 it strikes me as jarring and strange.  The first thing that popped into my mind when I read your question, in fact, was the use of “the disappeared” to mean the victims kidnapped by the Argentine military junta in the 1970s and never seen again.  The original Spanish term, “los desaparecidos,” translates as “those who have been disappeared,” invoking a similarly unusual transitive use (“to disappear someone”) of a normally intransitive verb.

“Vanish” is an interesting little word, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in the usual intransitive sense as “To disappear from sight, to become invisible, especially in a rapid and mysterious manner.”  Our English “vanish” is actually an aphetic, or cropped, form of the Old French “esvanir” (meaning “to disappear”), which was derived from the Latin “evanescere,” which also gave us the English word “evanescent” for those things which, like youth and low credit card interest rates, do not last long before vanishing.  Incidentally, within that “evanescere” lies the Latin root “vanus,” which means “empty,” and which also produced “vain” and “vanity.”

“Vanish” first appeared in English as an intransitive verb in the early 14th century, and most of its uses, with or without adverbs (“vanish away” was common usage until the 19th century), have been intransitive.  But Mr. Copperfield and his publicity minions didn’t invent or even pioneer the transitive use of “vanish” to mean “to cause to disappear.”  It turns out to have been puttering along in the background since about 1440 (“Thus are the villains … fled for fear, Like Summers vapors, vanished by the Sun,” Marlowe, 1590), although it’s never been nearly as popular as the intransitive use.  It seems, in fact, to have been used since the 19th century almost exclusively in the field of stage magic (“Then he vanishes a birdcage and its occupant … Finally, he vanishes his wife,” 1886) or in contexts where magic is used as a literary metaphor (“Lenin conjured government by mass-democracy out of sight, ‘vanished’ it as conjurors say … ,” H.G. Wells, 1934).  So Copperfield’s use of the transitive “vanish” was well within the jargon of his craft.

From scratch

They’re off!

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve heard the phrase “making from scratch” or “starting from scratch” and wonder about its origin.  Can you help? — Barbara Schultz.

Sure, I’d be happy to help.  But are you sure you wouldn’t rather make up your own answer?  Many people, especially on the internet, seem to enjoy inventing their own word origin explanations “from scratch,” using nothing more than a six-pack of beer, a few half-remembered scenes from old pirate movies, and whatever details they happen to recall of a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg.

To start or create (especially to cook) something “from scratch” means to make it from the most basic components or ingredients, with no help from kits, mixes, snap-together parts, packets of pre-mixed spices or flavorings, anything that requires “just adding” anything, contains the word “Helper” on the box, or comes in a box itself.  Hard as it may be to believe here in Microwave Nation, there was a time when, if one wanted a cake, one went out to a store and brought home flour, eggs, sugar and a bunch of lesser ingredients and mixed it all together according to instructions in a cookbook.  The result was called, at the time, simply a “cake,” but today it’s often termed a “scratch cake.”  That’s a good example of a “retronym,” by the way, an updated name for something (e.g., “acoustic guitar”) necessitated by the arrival of  a new form of the thing (in this case, the electric guitar).

“Scratch” itself is a very old word, dating back to Middle English.  Interestingly, the verb “to scratch” apparently originated as a combination of two other Middle English words, “scrat” and “crach,” both of which also meant “to scratch.”  The origin of all these words is, alas, uncertain.  Once in use in modern English in the 15th century, “scratch” as a noun progressed from simply meaning “a cut or abrasion on the surface of something” to having a wide range of meanings.

One of the most fertile such uses was “scratch” meaning “the starting line” or “boundary” of an athletic competition, often originally simply a line “scratched” in the dirt.  In boxing, for instance, the “scratch” was the line in the middle of the ring, up to which the boxers stepped at the start of a bout, which produced the idiom “step up to the scratch,” meaning “step forward to tackle a task or responsibility.”

In foot races, the “scratch” was the starting line, and “to start from scratch” meant to run the race with no advantage, no handicap or head start, i.e., “with nothing.”  The literal sense of “from scratch” was in use by 1867, but by the late 19th century “from scratch” was being used in its modern sense of “starting with nothing” (“We’d no fishing tackle of any kind, not even a pin or a bit of string. We had to start from scratch,” George Orwell, 1939).

“Scratch” has many other slang uses, of course.  Unfortunately, “scratch” as slang for “money,” which appeared in the early 20th century, is a complete mystery.  “Scratch” or “Old Scratch” as a term for the Devil has nothing to do with “scratch” in the “cut” sense, but comes from an Old Norse word (“skratte”) meaning “goblin.”