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Weary / Wary

Or maybe the crooks just all became government contractors.

Dear Word Detective:  As I understand it, “weary” means “tired” and “wary” means “not trusting.” Increasingly, it seems I’m seeing people use the former for the latter in a way that would pass the grammatical test, but changes the meaning, e.g., “By the late 1990s, the numbers indicated crime had indeed dropped in New York City. While Giuliani and other supporters of broken windows have long cited it as the reason behind the decline, critics have been weary for some time.” Merriam-Webster seems to indicate that this usage is incorrect, and notes that the etymology comes from different Middle English words, “wery” vs. “war/ware,” but I also know that spelling changes can happen, c.f. “insure” vs. “ensure” where we tend to assume different meanings these days. So, is there any tie between “weary” and “wary”? Or are they just plain wrong? Or alternately, are they just tired? — Sean Duggan.

Good question. Speaking of crime in New York City, I find it odd that it dropped precipitously at just about the time I left. Perhaps my departure (and consequent un-muggability) robbed the city’s malefactors of the ultimate incentive, the brass ring on the merry-go-round of crime, that gave them the will to go on.

Had I been the editor charged with smoothing your example sentence (which seems to come from a website called, I would have changed “weary” into “wary,” stared into space for a moment, and then changed it to “dubious.” “Wary” is a bit too emotive; the critics are doubtful, not fearful.

“Wary,” is an adjective meaning “cautious, on one’s guard, suspicious, circumspect” (“After several bad experiences on eBay, Bob was wary of the seller offering a MacBook Pro for $49″). “Wary” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Old English “waer,” meaning “careful” and “aware,” which in turn came from the Germanic root “waraz” (“attentive”), from which we also developed “aware.”

“Weary” is both an adjective, meaning “intensely tired or fatigued,” and a verb, meaning both “to become fatigued” or “to cause to become fatigued” (“By drawing out the War in length, they might think to weary and disorder the Enemy.” 1657). To “become weary” or “to weary” another person tends to imply a long, tedious ordeal; one might be “tired” after a fast game of ping-pong; one is “wearied” by a protracted lawsuit.

So there’s no etymological or sense connection between “weary” and “wary,” only a strong resemblance in spelling. Given that the arguments over the “broken windows” theory of policing (suggesting that strictly enforcing “quality of life” laws cuts serious crime) have been going on for years, everyone involved must be “weary.” But the logic of the sentence makes “wary” more appropriate, and I think we can chalk that “weary” up to a typographical error. As for the other uses of “weary” for “wary” that you’ve encountered, I think it’s a case of simple confusion based on the similarity in spelling, a close resemblance in sound, and, perhaps, a limited vocabulary.


Urk… [thud].

Dear Word Detective:  I tripped over one of our cats on my way to the kitchen last night, and after I recovered my balance, I started to wonder about the word “trip.” As a verb, it means to stumble and perhaps fall, perhaps hurting yourself. But as a noun, it means a journey, often a pleasant one (usually more pleasant than beaning yourself on the stove, anyway). Are these really the same word, and, if so, how did they end up with such different meanings? And what about “trip an alarm”? How does that fit in? — Larry.

Those darn cats. Trust me, they’re doing it on purpose. I have calmly and patiently explained to our cats that if they do eventually succeed in incapacitating me by running between my legs as I come downstairs, I will be unable to open those pricey cans of cat food. But it did no good. It makes me wonder if they have ulterior motives quite apart from trying to get my attention. Perhaps they’ve all chipped in, bought a life insurance policy on me, and are getting impatient.

Onward. “Trip” as a noun comes from “trip” as a verb, so it’s probably easiest to begin there. Our English “to trip” comes from the Old French “treper” or “triper,” meaning “to strike the ground with the foot to show joy or impatience; to leap, dance, skip, stamp, hop or trample.” Appearing in English in the late 14th century, the general sense of “to trip” was “to dance or move lightly on one’s feet in a lively manner.” This is the sense used in the hoary (and, to me, intensely annoying) phrase “Trip the light fantastic.” The phrase was coined by the poet Milton in 1642 (“Sport that wrinkled Care derides, And Laughter holding both his sides, Come, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastic toe.”), but is probably best known from the 1894 song “The Sidewalks of New York” (“Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke / Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”).

Of course, not everyone is Fred Astaire, and early in the 15th century “trip” took on the additional meaning, now the most common, of “to strike the foot against something so as to stumble or fall.” In the late 19th century, a sense of “trip” meaning “to release or set into operation” arose, probably from the motion of a mechanical switch or lock. This “set off” sense is used today when we “trip an alarm.”

Given all this dancing around and falling down, “trip” as an enjoyable (maybe) journey might seem unrelated, but it’s not. The original sense of “trip” as a noun in the 16th century was “the act of tripping,” i.e., dancing, skipping, etc. This led in the 17th century to “trip” meaning a short journey (originally by boat), a short “run” to some point and back, especially if routinely taken (e.g., a “trip” to the supermarket). By the 18th century, a “trip” could mean any sort of journey taken, originally one taken for pleasure, but eventually coming to include the dreaded “business trip.”

Incidentally, the use of “trip” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a hallucinatory experience induced by a drug, especially LSD” is an extension of this “journey” sense dating back to 1959 (“I took some mescaline… At the end of a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe, the book of The Deer Park floated into mind.” Norman Mailer). “Trip” in this sense has also been used since the 1960s to mean “an exciting experience” (“Visiting my old high school was a real trip.”) and “a delusional, obsessive or self-indulgent state of mind,” as in “ego-trip” (“I shouldn’t bother — politics was a sixties trip.” 1979).


Like August in the attic.

Dear Word Detective:  Back in central Pennsylvania, some of my relatives (mother, grandmother) would say that “It is close in here” meaning that it was stuffy, usually more specifically meaning hot, humid, with no moving air. The expression was also applied to conditions outside as well. Thoughts?  — Steve Benning.

Tell me about it. I grew up in coastal Connecticut, and I still remember visiting my grandparents in Columbus, Ohio in the summer as a child. It got hot in Connecticut, of course, but not like Central Ohio. Ohio was awful. Not a breath of wind, insanely high humidity and suffocating heat. The tar on the street melted and we wrote our names on the curb with it. I swore I’d never live in Ohio myself. Guess where I live now. Oh, well.

“Close” is an interesting old word. In English, we use “close” as a verb, as two separate nouns, as an adverb and as an adjective. The verb “to close” is actually the oldest in English, first appearing around 1200 and derived, via Old French, from the Latin “claudere,” meaning “to shut, to confine, to surround with walls, etc.” The verb “to close” in English also carries the figurative senses of “to end, conclude” (as in “close a deal”) and “to bring or move into close proximity or contact” (“close ranks”).

When “close” appeared as an English adjective in the late 14th century, it meant primarily “closed up, shut in or shut up,” with associated senses of secrecy, concealment or exclusivity (“When close plots faile, use open violence.” 1607). By about 1500, “close” began to develop its now-common sense of “in proximity in space, time, etc.” In this sense of “close” it is the spaces between things that are “closed up,” reduced to a minimum, making the things as near to each other as possible. Thus in a “close call” something (usually something bad) comes very “close” to happening, but does not. A “close shave” leaves no stubble, and a “close friend” is, in theory, never socially or emotionally distant. The adverb “close” is used in much the same sense (e.g., “I always sit close to the door”) but in many situations the form “closely” fits better (“I follow the playoffs closely”).

The use of “close” as an adjective to describe hot, stifling weather (or the hot stale atmosphere in a house or room) comes from the sense of a house or room completely “closed up,” with no circulation of fresh air. This use dates back to the 16th century (“We had now for several days together close and sultry weather.” 1748).

Synonyms for “close” in this “suffocatingly stale and hot” sense have included, at various times, “muggy,” “sulky,” “sticky,” “soggy” and, oddly, “faint” (here meaning “likely to cause fainting”). My favorite, however, is “pothery,” a 17th century English regional term formed on the noun “pother,” of unknown origin, meaning both “a disturbance” and “a smoky or dusty atmosphere” (“It wuz mighty pothery about three o’clock this onder — I thought we shoulden a ‘ad thunder, but it cliered off.” 1879).