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 Topica 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

Draw a long bow

We call it “enhancing the reading experience.”

Dear Word Detective: What is the best connection you can dream up between “lying” and  “drawing a long bow”? Is it related to what I call “adding to the truth”? I used to see it as related to playing on a violin but I could never get anywhere with that. — Ken in Alaska.

Ah, yes, the violin, the most deceptive of musical instruments. So fragile and delicate, yet so shamelessly manipulative. The mere sound of swelling violins on a film soundtrack has long been recognized as a signal of impending hokum and hornswoggling, and violins are, of course, anathema to cats. No instrument, save the harmonica, is so redolent of deceit and perfidy. And it doesn’t help that the things make anyone playing one look like Richard Nixon in his worst “I am not a crook” moment. The furrowed brow, the trembling jowls; like a bulldog eating an end table.

Thank heavens that violins have nothing to do with the phrase “to draw a long bow,” eh? It’s an idiom dating back to at least the 1660s meaning “to exaggerate; to tell tall tales,” so it’s both more and less than simply “lying.” There’s something about the topic of exaggeration, incidentally, that brings out the colorful phrases. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Historical Thesaurus lists such synonyms for “draw the long bow” as “to go beyond the moon” (circa 1430), “to turn every goose into a swan” (1621), “to overegg the pudding” (1845), and, of course, “to lay it on with a trowel” (which, a bit surprisingly, dates back to around 1616).

The “long bow” in the phrase is the English “longbow,” a fearsome weapon which dominated European warfare from its rise in the 13th century until the widespread adoption of gunpowder in the 16th century. The longbow was indeed “long,” usually roughly the height of a typical archer, made of English yew wood, and required a hefty 90-110 pounds of force to “draw” in order to fire an arrow. Using a longbow required long training as well as development of the physical strength required to use one. But in trained hands, the longbow was capable of punching an arrow through Medieval metal armor at great distances, and the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was both the most famous victory and the high water mark of the longbow.

By the way, to “draw” (pull back) the bowstring on a bow employs “draw” (from the Old English “dragan,” to pull or drag, also related to “drag”) in its original sense of “to pull.” When an artist “draws” a picture, the pencil, etc., is “pulled” across the paper. “Draw” in the archery sense dates to the early 14th century; the “create a picture” sense arose around 1200.

As the “killer app” of Medieval warfare, the longbow inspired a large body of popular lore about the extraordinary feats of its users. English folk legends centering on Robin Hood, for instance, depict him as a master of the longbow and an almost supernaturally gifted marksman, easily capable of hitting tiny targets at enormous distances. The longbow also featured in a number of popular sayings still used today. “To have many strings to one’s bow,” a reference to archers carrying at least one spare bowstring into battle, means to have several alternatives or resources available (“Miss Bertram … might be said to have two strings to her bow,” Jane Austen, 1814). “To shoot another’s bow” means to practice an art or skill not your own, and “the bent of one’s bow” refers to a person’s character or inclination (“I have the bent of his bowe, that I know,” 1562).

Given the centrality of the longbow to English culture and the number of legends and “tall tales” that sprang up about the near-magical skills of its users, it’s not surprising that someone relaying an exaggeration or fantastic story would be said to be “drawing a long bow” as if  relating Robin Hood-esque feats of derring-do. Appearing first in print in 1668 (“There came to us several Tradesmen; the first of them a Poor Rogue that made profession of drawing the long Bow”), to “draw the long bow” is the equivalent of telling the traditional “fish story” about the huge catch that got away. It’s not really lying, because no one within earshot truly believes it’s true.

Al large

We’ll bait the trap with black coffee and blue pencils.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the phrase “at large” as in “editor-at-large” or “the fugitive is at large.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) indicates that “at one’s large” to mean “at liberty” has been in use since the 14th century, but how did this come to refer to editors?  And what does it currently mean? — Jackie.

Editors? I thought they were extinct. If they’re really running around “at large,” I wish someone would round them up and send them to the internet. Have you seen it lately? Even the websites of established print journals are full of typographical errors and half-baked edits that produce gibberish. Oh well, I’m probably paying too much attention to this stuff.

Living out in the country, I pay special attention to the phrase “at large” because rarely a month passes around here without a fugitive miscreant “at large” being apprehended loping through the corn. And then there was the “exotic animal collector” who released lions and tigers and bears down the road from us last year. There’s nothing like hearing that Bengal tigers are “at large” in your area to focus the mind (specifically on other, saner places to live).

“Large” is an interesting word because its original meaning in English is now obsolete, but it remains an exceptionally common word in senses that developed after its first appearance. When “large” appeared in English in the late 12th century, it meant “generous, lavish, bountiful,” reflecting its source in the Latin “largus” meaning “abundant and lavish.” This sense, now obsolete, developed into meaning “ample” or “copious,” and from there came into use in spatial descriptions meaning “roomy, spacious, etc.” From that “roomy” sense most of our modern uses of “large” developed, including “large” in various senses denoting great size as well as “large” in figurative senses describing the fullness or great substance of something, from “largeness of heart” (“That uxorious King, whose heart though large, Beguil’d by fair Idolatresses, fell To Idols foul,” Milton, 1667) to the “largeness” of more worldly treasures (“He made large profits on some articles, but his business did not pay on the whole,” 1902).

Meanwhile, that early sense of “large” meaning “roomy, spacious” had sprouted a slightly different branch of “large” in the sense of “free, unrestricted, without limitation.” Thus to be “large of circumstances” meant to have enough money to be able to live free of want or worry (“Many families who the last week were in large circumstances, were now reduced to beggary,” 1738), a sense still found in the US slang phrase “to live large,” meaning “to be wealthy and spend extravagantly.” In nautical use, a wind blowing from behind the ship was “large” because it provided freedom and ease of navigation to the vessel; to sail “by” the wind, on the other hand, was to sail into the wind, a trickier business. “By and large” as a nautical term meant “in any possible circumstance,” and eventually came to be used ashore to mean “in most cases; for the most part.”

This use of “large” to mean “free and easy; without restraint” gave us “at large” in several senses. The phrase first appeared around 1400 in the sense of literally “free, without restraint” (“Here walk’d the Fiend at large in spacious field,” Milton, 1667), still used in news stories about fugitives. “At large” was also, beginning in the 17th century, used to mean “in general, not in any particular sense,” a use now most familiar in “at-large delegate,” etc., meaning one who represents, for example, a whole state rather than one particular town or region. This brings us to “editor at large,” “writer at large” and similar phrases which simply mean that the person is “free”  to pursue projects or topics covering a wide range, often of their own design, rather than to simply fulfill assignments.

Drop me a line

Send it to Dev Null, Manager of Customer Relations.

Dear Word Detective:  I noticed that information sites are always encouraging people to “drop us a line.” Fishing? Phishing? Or just plain friendly? Do you know where the expression “drop me a line” originates? — Margherita Wohletz.

Wow. You’re not going to believe this, but I was cleaning out an old desk in the barn today, and I found your question on a scrap of yellowed paper wedged behind one of the drawers. Looks like you sent it way back in 2008. The raccoons had gotten to it, but I managed to make out the writing by holding it up to a candle flame.

See, I told you you wouldn’t believe me. Hey, I’ve been busy lately. I don’t know how I missed your question back then, but I’m glad I found it, because it’s actually a great topic. I have the sense that the popularity of “drop us a line” has faded a bit in the age of email, but it’s actually, as we shall see, every bit as applicable to email as to postal mail.

Our modern English word “line” is actually the result of a merger of two earlier words, the Old English “line” meaning “cord, rope, series, row” and the Middle English (originally French) “ligne,” meaning “thread, cord, linen thread.” Not surprisingly, the two words had a common source, the Latin “linea,” flaxen, from “linum,” flax.

If the noun “line” were a Swiss Army knife, it would have 75 blades and weigh twelve pounds. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “line” goes on close to forever and divides the uses of the word into five main senses, each with numerous particular uses: “cord or string,” including cables, fishing lines, and lines aboard ship; “thread-like mark,” including lines drawn for various purposes, a musical passage, mathematical lines, a political policy (as in “party line”), information (“Get a line on”) and geographical boundaries (“Mason-Dixon Line”); “line” as “applied to things arranged along a (straight) line,” including a row of people or things, railway lines, battle lines, rows of letters in text, and conveyances routinely following a set route (bus lines, airlines, etc.); “line” used to denote “serial succession,” as in “family line,” and “line” meaning “direction or course of movement,” as in a “line” of business, or a “line of credit.” The OED goes on to enumerate more than a dozen compound and combination terms also involving “line,” such as “linebacker” and “line-loss” (electrical leakage). I am in awe of this dictionary entry and I hope I never have to read it again.

Meanwhile, back at your question, I direct your attention to Sense III, subsense 23, “line” meaning “a row of written or printed letters.” Subparagraph (a) therein refers to “One of the rows of letters in any piece of writing,” as in the lines of text making up any printed document. These are the “lines” found in the phrase “to read between the lines,” meaning, as the OED puts it, “to discover a meaning or purpose not obvious or explicitly expressed in a piece of writing.”

Two sections south of there, in subparagraph (d), we hit pay dirt, namely “line” defined as “a few words in writing; often applied to a short letter.” This usage dates back to 1647 (“I … desire a line under your own hand to whom I shall deliver the castle,” H. Markham), and has been in common use ever since. The “drop” part of the idiom “drop a line” is a usage dating back to at least 1769 meaning “To let (a letter or note) fall into the letter-box; hence, to send (a note, etc.) in a casual or informal way.” (OED) (“I will drop a line as often as I can,” John Quincy Adams, 1777).

The practice of dropping mail into boxes at the Post Office or on the street corner is, sadly, fading away today, but the point and click nature of email more than fits the “casual” sense of “drop a line.” And to “drop someone a line” is to stay in touch in a personal, one-to-one sense, where even just a short note can mean far more than just another Facebook “like.”