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Slip sliding away, or maybe not.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you elucidate me on the origin of the word “sleuth” for a detective? UK TV has recently had programs concerning female detectives (e.g., Miss Marple) and calls them female “sleuths.” Although I have heard the term before, I am intrigued as to its origin. Latin and Greek and German appear to be ruled out. My Anglo-Saxon, like so much of the rest of me, is no longer what it was. — Graham Chambers.

Tell me about it. I just spent the last half-hour searching both my computer and my Word Detective website because I simply couldn’t believe that I’d never answered a question about “sleuth” before. I had even bypassed your question for about two months because I had seen the subject line “sleuth” and assigned it a mental label of “Done that.” Obviously, this is an episode rich in opportunities for wry and recursive humor, but I have a confession to make that may explain my lapse. I actually hate the word “sleuth.” Always have. No idea why, except that it has always struck me as precious, coy and creepy, the sort of Ned Flanders word that NPR and PBS hosts love. “Sleuth,” simpered Laura Linney, “Sleuth, sleuth, sleuth.”

“Sleuth” as a noun means simply “detective,” or “one employed or engaged in detecting lawbreakers or in getting information that is not readily or publicly accessible” (Merriam-Webster). In common usage, a “sleuth” is rarely a police detective, unless that detective was fired from the force (after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit) despite the fact that he apparently possesses an uncanny knack for tracking down criminal masterminds in less than an hour. A “sleuth” (at least in films and novels) is usually a private detective, often an amateur whose natural detecting brilliance succeeds where all those unimaginative cops fail. Sherlock Holmes was a sleuth; Lenny Briscoe, much as I loved him, was a cop. But Lenny would have made an awesome sleuth.

Interestingly, the original “sleuths” were not even people. Our modern word “sleuth” is actually a short form of “sleuthhound” or “sleuth dog,” meaning a dog, usually a bloodhound or similar breed, originally used in Scotland for tracking and/or pursuing something or someone. The “sleuth” in “sleuthhound” appeared in English around 1200 with the meaning “a track or trail of a person or animal; a definite track or path.” This “sleuth” comes from the Old Norse “slod,” meaning “track or trail.”

“Sleuthhound” was first used in the figurative sense of “pursuer, tracker or detective” in the mid-19th century, but it didn’t immediately take on a law enforcement sense, and a “sleuth” could be on the trail of just about anything (“The West Riding men are sleuth-hounds in pursuit of money,” 1857). The application of “sleuthhound” to police and private detectives seems to have arisen in the US, although figurative uses have always been common on both sides of the Atlantic (“The hunt for it would be engrossing to a literary sleuth-hound,” 1948).

“Sleuthhound” is rarely seen these days, having been largely replaced in the late 1800s by the shorter form “sleuth” (“Goodwin followed at increased speed, but without any of the artful tactics that are so dear to the heart of the sleuth,” O. Henry, 1904). Since the beginning of the 20th century, “sleuth” has also been used as a verb meaning “to investigate something,” sometimes in the form “to sleuth out” meaning “to discover” (“It had been something private he’d sleuthed out, something secret,” 1968), or “to track or follow a person” (“‘Who hired you to sleuth me?’ … ‘You are in error,’ replied Poirot. ‘I have not been sleuthing you.'” Agatha Christie, 1956).


Or maybe it’s just “Achoo!” with a really bad head cold.

Dear Word Detective: Most people, I realize, pronounce “ague” with two syllables; but my mother (probably the only person I ever heard use this word in a sentence) pronounced it with one syllable, to rhyme with “vague” (which makes sense if you think about it). Anyway, it occurred to me that that makes it a near homophone of “ache,” which of course triggered the Word Detective reflex in my keyboard finger. — Charles Anderson.

“Keyboard finger,” singular? You sound like me. I took typing in junior high school, but didn’t pay much attention because I was going to be a disk jockey like Murray the K. Now I hunt and peck all day long.

The way your mother pronounced “ague” does make a lot of sense, and I actually prefer it, although the standard pronunciation is “AY-gyoo.” Maybe she picked up some obscure folk pronunciation at some point. In any case, it’s not a common word, although it was much more popular before we all became mini-doctors via the internet and drug ads. “Ague” is a high fever marked by bouts of severe chills. The pattern of high fever and sweating interspersed with paroxysms of violent chilling and trembling is the signature of malarial infections, though diseases other than malaria can cause similar torment. “Ague” is also used in less dire circumstances to mean simply a severe chill or fit of shivering (“But soon his rhetorick forsook him … A sudden fit of ague shook him, He stood as mute as poor Macleane,” 1753).

“Ague” first appeared in English in the late 14th century, borrowed from the Old French “ague,” meaning “sharp fever,” which in turn was formed from the Latin “acuta,” meaning “sharp” (related to our adjective “acute,” which was first used in a medical sense). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name “ague” was first given to the “burning fever” stage, but later came to be associated with the shivering chills stage because that was the more outwardly dramatic phase of the cycle.

As a somewhat vague term for an extended high fever and chills, “ague” has made high-profile literary appearances in everything from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“Ye schul have a fever terciane, Or an agu, that may be youre bane,” circa 1386) to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (“An Ague very violent; the Fit held me seven Hours, cold Fit and hot, with faint Sweats after it,” 1719). Unfortunately, the age of picky-picky clinical diagnosis seems to have banished such great evocative terms as “ague,” “chilblains” (swelling in the fingers and toes from cold), “apoplexy” (originally a stroke), “catalepsy” (seizures), “consumption” (tuberculosis), and “dropsy” (edema) from the popular lexicon. Even the “lumbago” once issued to every uncle over a certain age has now been driven out of our gossip in favor of the dull “lower back pain.” I blame Doctor Kildare and Ben Casey, personally. Oh well, we’ll always have “pleurisy.” (Been there; it’s awful.)

“Ache,” meaning a dull pain, does sound like your mother’s pronunciation of “ague,” but there’s really no etymological connection. The development of “ache” is murky and complex; the noun and verb were spelled and pronounced differently from each other in Old and Middle English and even in early Modern English. The ultimate source of “ache” is uncertain, but it’s thought to be a proto-Indo-European root having something to do with “guilt,” possibly with a bit of an imitation of a pained groan thrown in.

Washed up

Remember, kids, “Has been” will always beat “Never was.”

Dear Word Detective: I recently heard a female “celebrity” being described as a “washed-up” Playboy bunny. I’m curious for where the “washed up” usage comes from; I’m guessing it’s got more to do with flotsam and jetsam appearing on the beach than good bodily hygiene. — Chris, Kansas City.

That’s a good question, which makes me wonder why I didn’t answer it when you sent it in 18 months ago. Mea culpa. The truth is that I’ve been staring out the window at squirrels for the past few years (it’s cheaper than cable), and I’m afraid I’ve adopted their habit of burying especially tasty treasures for later use. This may also explain why my sock drawer is stuffed with oatmeal cookies.

“Wash” is one of those little big words, the small words that, by virtue of meaning something central to everyday life, have acquired an apparently endless entourage of extended and derivative meanings. “Wash” first appeared in Old English, in the form “waescan” or “wascan,” derived from Germanic forms that all point back to the Germanic root word “wat.” That “wat,” by the way, also gave us our English word “water.” In English, the most basic sense of “to wash” has been simply “to cleanse by means of water.” Fun fact: in Old English “waescan” was used only when referring to clothes; if you were washing dishes or your own body, you used “thwean.” Time travelers take note.

In addition to all the literal senses of “wash,” English employs the word in a variety of idioms and slang phrases. To “wash one’s dirty linen in public,” a French proverb popularized by Napoleon, means to expose one’s personal affairs to public scrutiny. When we say that something will “come out in the wash,” an idiom dating back to about 1900, we mean that either the truth will be revealed (i.e., dirt washed away) or that a situation will be made right (i.e., a stain removed). If an assertion or alibi won’t stand scrutiny, we say “it won’t wash,” meaning that it will prove to be untrue or unacceptable in the metaphorical “wash” of close examination.

“Wash up,” of which “washed up” is an adjectival form, does indeed mean “to be deposited on shore by the action of waves or the tide,” as “flotsam” and “jetsam” frequently are. (“Flotsam,” strictly speaking, means floating items (cargo, tools, etc.) washed overboard from a ship, possibly as it sinks, while “jetsam” means items deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned), sometimes in order to avoid sinking.) “Washed up” in this “what’s that on the beach” sense would make a vivid, if somewhat grisly, slang metaphor for “worn out” or “has-been.”

Fortunately, the origin of “washed up” in the “brilliant career definitely over” sense is much more benign. “Wash up” has been used as slang meaning “to finish, to end” since the 1920s. The original sense seems to have been “washing up,” cleaning one’s hands, face, etc., after completing a job, and the earliest citations indicate that it first became popular in the theater (“[Stage slang.] Washed up, all through for the night,” NY Times, 1923). But another citation, this one from the NY World in 1925, indicates that “wash up” was also used in the sense of “to get rid of” or “to deep six” an unpromising performer (“‘That guy might be all right if he washed up [washed, cleaned himself],’ commented Buck… Just then the stage manager called out: ‘What will I do with this act, Mr. Ziegfeld?’ ‘Wash up him and the bird,’ said Flo [Ziegfeld] and that was the last of the Italian and his trained canary.”). So a “washed up” act was one that had been “washed up” and sent home.

“Wash up” has occasionally been used in a positive “finish” or “complete” sense (“‘I had an idea,’ he explained.? ‘Just came to me, riding back. I think I know how I can wash it up.’? He would write it now — tonight!” 1929). But “washed up” (or “all washed up”) has pretty consistently meant “worn out, finished, ruined,” whether it was applied to a personal relationship or the career of someone considered, perhaps a bit prematurely, a has-been (“Once he was the most underestimated man in American politics — a washed-up movie star, it was said, who was too old, too simple and too far right to be President,” Newsweek, 1980).