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And I think we should eliminate all words with “ie” and “ei” because they annoy me

Dear Word Detective: I came across a word I had never seen before while reading a colleague’s father’s obituary: “inurnment.” I guess as he was cremated, he would not be interred, but “inurned” — put in a lovely jar. I thought it was a bad typo, being an editor for 24 years, mainly in Ontario government communications for employees. Have you seen this one before? Did we really need it? — Irene Stewart.

Oh heck, do we really need any of these gazillions of words? I’ve found that I can get by quite well on a typical day simply by pointing and grunting. Granted, this method may not work as well outside Ohio, but I suspect that most things worth saying can be said with about twenty words. Seriously, doesn’t “Go food car” cover great swaths of modern life? “Money me” also seems pretty clear, as does “pizza now.” Throw in “bad cat” and you’re good to go. Trust me on this; a simpler life beckons. Our dog Brownie has a vocabulary of exactly six terms (“food,” “walk,” “cat,” “ride,” “ball” and “green bean” (don’t ask)), and she seems perfectly content.

Oh right, your question. “Inurnment” was a new one to me as well and initially I found the word a bit jarring. Sorry. That could probably be developed into a much more tasteless joke. Anyway, I’m afraid that in this case both you and I are victims of what etymologists call “the recency illusion,” the belief that an unfamiliar word or usage must be new (and often thus suspect) when, in reality, it’s been around since Hector was a pup.

So it is with “inurnment,” which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the process of placing the ashes of a cremated body into an urn.” The original sense of “urn” was specifically “vessel used to preserve the ashes of the dead,” and the word, derived from the Latin “urna,” seems to have been rooted in the Latin verb “urere,” meaning “to burn.” “Urn” first appeared in English in this “Aunt in a Can” sense in the 14th century, but the Pottery Barn sense of “urn” as a general-purpose receptacle for your car keys and the like didn’t develop until the early 17th century.

Of course, we would expect “urn” itself to be an ancient word; it’s “inurnment” that sounds like the modern spawn of an especially oleaginous funeral director. But “inurnment” first appeared in print, as far as we know, way back in 1602. And wait, it gets better. “Inurnment” didn’t first appear in some obscure 1602 treatise on bat taxidermy. William Shakespeare bestowed it on us in Act One, Scene IV of Hamlet, when Hammy first encounters, and addresses, his father’s ghost: “Why the Sepulcher Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d, Hath op’d his ponderous and Marble iawes [jaws], To cast thee up againe?” (i.e., “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead. In a tomb. In a jar.”).

Interestingly, some versions of this scene I have found online render “inurnment” as “interment,” but that’s an entirely different word. “Inter,” meaning “to deposit the body of a deceased person in the ground,” first appeared in English in the 14th century based on the Latin “interrare,” a verb combining “in” with “terra,” earth. A synonymous term, rarely heard today, is “inhume,” from “in” plus “humus,” Latin for “ground.” Of course, every devotee of the innumerable autopsy shows on American television is familiar with the converse of “inhume,” which is “exhume,” meaning “to dig the poor sap up.”

Incidentally, “jar” as I used it in the silly joke a few paragraphs north of here has no connection to “jar” in the raspberry jam sense, which comes from the Arabic “jarrah,” meaning “earthenware vessel.” The verb “to jar” originally meant “to make an unpleasant grating sound” (and may be of “echoic” or imitative origin). Our modern senses of “to jar,” ranging from “to bump or shock sharply” to “to conflict or cause disquiet or discord” are all later figurative uses of the word.

Walk back the cat


Dear Word Detective: What is known about the history or origin of the statement “that cat cannot be walked back”? — James.

That’s an interesting question. When I say that, I usually mean either that it interests me personally (and I plan to drag the rest of you along for the ride), or that I think the answer is neat, cool, or surprising enough to actually interest most readers. In this case, however, I can confidently assert that this question is objectively interesting, because at least half the internet seems to be looking for the answer. (That’s an exaggeration, of course. Ninety percent of the people on the internet are spending all day every day futzing with their Facebook pages.)

The proximate cause for the sudden uptick in interest in cats walking backwards can be found in a recent article, widely excerpted online, by the conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan. Noting that US corporate leaders “championed investing in China and trade with China” but now find China’s economic power threatening, he declares, “Sorry, but that cat cannot be walked back.”
Buchanan was apparently using the term “to walk back the cat” to mean “to reverse” or “to undo” something already done, what might also be called “putting the genie back in the bottle” or, perhaps more evocative of the impossibility involved, “putting the toothpaste back in the tube.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used the phrase in the same sense earlier this year, as did Bonnie Goldstein in Slate last year (“Now Cornyn wants the attorney general nominee to walk back the cat by agreeing to not prosecute”).

This “undo” or “take it back” sense of “to walk back the cat” seems to be gaining currency lately, but the phrase originally had a different, more intriguing meaning that deserves to be preserved. “To walk back the cat” comes from the world of spooks, spy masters and double agents explored by writers such as the great John LeCarre. The late William Safire, a Washington insider with excellent sources in the intelligence community, explained the term in his New York Times column back in 2002: “Intelligence analysts have a technique to reveal a foreign government’s internal dissension called ‘walking back the cat.’ They apply what they now know as fact against what their agents said to expect. In that way, walkers-back learn who ‘disinformed’ or whose mistake may reveal a split in a seemingly monolithic hierarchy.”

So “to walk back the cat” in this original sense means to conduct a detailed review and analysis of who said what to whom in light of subsequent events to glean some useful knowledge about whom to trust and, perhaps, a bit about how an opponent works. A slightly different, but clearly related, use of the phrase is to mean “to trace the development of a crisis backwards in order to determine responsibility or to identify errors made or warnings missed.”

If you’ve ever watched a cat wander around a large house or even a small yard, you’ll probably instantly understand the logic behind “walk back the cat.” Cats rarely seem to march from one place to another with a clear purpose in mind, as dogs often do. A cat forges its own labyrinthine path, often doubling back on its route and making what seems like a thousand little side trips in the course of a short stroll. A graphic representation of the typical cat’s journey of just a few minutes’ duration would resemble nothing so much as a tangle of string, but it might provide some interesting glimpses into the cat’s psyche. (OK, probably not, but bear with me.)

So “walking back the cat” is a perfect metaphor for retracing the complex development of an event and examining the “run up” to it for useful insights. The use of “walk back the cat” to simply mean “undo” or “repair” thus mangles a compelling metaphor and misses the point, since the occurrence of the event is itself an important data point in such an investigation. After all, as any fortune-teller will tell you, you can’t read tea leaves until you’ve emptied the cup.


Or possibly a bear in a tutu.

Dear Word Detective: In the Awakening, by Kate Chopin, the main character’s young children are described as wearing “befurbelowed” clothing. Now, to me that sounded like they were wearing fur undergarments. But that sounded like a distinctly unsanitary and uncomfortable proposition. And since the children were well cared for and also lived in a hot, humid climate, it seemed an unlikely mode of dress. Checking my dictionary, I see that it refers to clothing that has frills on it. So shouldn’t we say “befrilledbelowed”? — J. Landis.

Hey, don’t knock fur underwear until you’ve tried it. As Head Berserker of our local Viking re-enactors group, I can assure you that nothing beats BVDs knitted from genuine Norwegian wolf fur when you’re pillaging an abandoned strip mall. Sure, you sweat like an elk in August, but that’s half the fun. Incidentally, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the nice folks at the Wapokeneta Ramada Inn about the recent fracas at their breakfast buffet. Lyle is really a nice guy, but he has a mead problem.

Oops. I just discovered that there really are Viking re-enactor groups here in the US. Who knew? I think it would be awesome if they took on those Civil War Bores. I’d buy a ticket to that, especially if we could somehow work dinosaurs into the mix.

Meanwhile, back at “befurbelowed,” that is a seriously strange word. Just for starters, it seems to be missing from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), from which not very many words, even very strange ones, are missing. To track down the word in the OED we have to first lop off the prefix “be” and then the suffix “ed.” Bingo, we now have “furbelow,” which the OED recognizes and helpfully defines as “A piece of stuff pleated and puckered on a gown or petticoat; a flounce; the pleated border of a petticoat or gown.” There are subsidiary definitions having to do with things, such as a certain seaweed, that resemble a furbelow, but the only interesting additional point to be made is that multiple furbelows are sometimes considered evidence that the wearer is flighty and unserious. A true fashion disaster for a Viking, obviously.

“Furbelow” first cropped up in English at the beginning of the 18th century (“Lady Revel … Discovers a purse in the Furbeloes of her Apron,” 1706), and the word still gets more than 136,000 hits on Google today, although at least the first few hundred are people asking what the heck it means. The first step in tracing the roots of “furbelow” is easy: it’s simply a modified form of “falbala,” adopted from the French, where it means “frill or flounce.” Unfortunately, that’s the end of easy street, because no one has a plausible theory of where “falbala” came from, although there are forms of the word in several European languages (e.g., the Spanish “farfala”).

If we can’t go forward from this point, we can still retrace our steps and take a closer gander at “befurbelow.” That “be” is an interesting prefix. We adapted it from the Old English preposition and adverb “bi,” which originally carried the sense of “about,” but later weakened to mean simply “near” or “at,” as is found in several modern words such as “below” or “between.” This “be,” when attached to a transitive verb, acts as an intensifier (e.g., “bespatter” means “to spatter all over”). But when stuck to an intransitive verb, an adjective or a noun, “be” has the magical power to transform it into a transitive verb. Thus “befurbelow” means “to furnish or decorate with a furbelow,” and “befurbelowed” means “decorated with furbelows.”

Incidentally, “befurbelowed” is sometimes used in non-clothing contexts to mean “overly elaborate or ornate,” as in The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s classic 1945 humorous memoir of her days raising chickens in the Pacific Northwest, in which she refers to inhabitants of a nearby town “tatting themselves up large, befurbelowed Victorian houses.”