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. (note: JavaScript must be turned on in your browser to view results.)


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 2007 – 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 email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. 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


Where all the food is soft and every day is Halloween.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word “geezer” or “geezing” come from? — Brent Lilly.

That’s a good question. I actually answered it about ten years ago, but that was before many of today’s geezers were geezers, and the ones who were are unlikely to remember the answer anyway, so we’ll do it again. In fact, I must be a geezer too, because I didn’t initially remember that I’d ever explained the word. What was the question again?

A “geezer” is, in popular usage today, an older person, almost always a man, often one whose behavior is regarded as either eccentric or stereotypically “elderly.” Grampa Simpson of the Simpsons TV show is probably the most well-known example of the “geezer” in popular culture today (“Dear Mr. President, there are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot.”). Grampa the “geezer” is often depicted as irritable and cranky (“Hey kid, get off my lawn”), at least mildly irrational (“I say we call Matlock. He’ll find the culprit.”), and mired firmly in the past (“The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.”).

Given how firmly “geezer” is connected today with old men, it’s a bit ironic that the term originally meant a person of any age. The criterion of “geezerhood” was not age but oddness, and when it first appeared in the late 1800s, “geezer” simply meant “an eccentric, unpleasant man.” The root of “geezer” is the English dialectical term “guiser,” which is a shortened form of “disguiser,” meaning a person who dresses up in costume for a masquerade or other occasion. To call someone a “guiser” (or “geezer”) was to say that they were dressed and behaving as oddly as one might on Halloween, for example. The transition of “geezer” to meaning an older, eccentric man took place around the 1920s, and the use of “geezer” to mean simply “weirdo” is now obsolete.

“Geezing,” presumably based on the verb “to geeze,” meaning “to act like a geezer,” isn’t in the dictionaries yet, but probably soon will be, as I have found myself using it on several occasions recently. Interestingly, “to geeze” has been fairly obscure slang among users of illicit narcotics since the late 1960s, meaning “to inject morphine, heroin or a similar drug.” The noun form “geezer” has been used since the 1920s to mean such an injection, apparently an outgrowth of “geezer” as slang for a drink of liquor in the late 19th century. Whether these uses of “geezer” are related to “geezer” meaning either an odd person or an old man is unclear, but if they are the connection may be an allusion to the drugs reducing the user to a state of insensibility associated with either dementia or senescence.

Black Maria/Paddy wagon

You have the right to remain flummoxed.

Dear Word Detective: I have seen the term “The Black Maria” referred to in terms of what we call a “paddy wagon” here in the States. However, I also recall reading this same description in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books referring to a black car used by the KGB or police to secretly take away prisoners in the middle of the night. I’ve always wondered where that term came from, and thought you might enlighten me. — John Moffo.

Hmm. Interesting. My spell-checker is fine with “Solzhenitsyn,” but chokes on your last name, Moffo, which you share with the late great Italian-American operatic soprano Anna Moffo. I find my spell-checker’s choices fascinating. It’s like having a little person living inside my computer deciding whether people, places and things are famous enough to pass muster. The rest of the time, of course, the machine is as stupid as a toaster.

A “Black Maria” is, as you say, a police van or similar conveyance used to transport prisoners to jail or to court appearances, and it’s worth noting at the outset that “Maria” in this case is usually pronounced “mah-RYE-ah,” as was common in the 19th century, rather than “mah-REE-ah.” Then again, “usually” is a bit of a stretch, because I haven’t heard the term spoken aloud in decades. “Paddy wagon” is far more common.

As is common when phrases involve personal names, a number of theories have been proposed tracing “Black Maria,” which first appeared in print around 1835, to actual people named Maria. Michael Quinion, at his World Wide Words website (, mentions two such theories suggested by his readers. One, centering on an upper-class woman in 19th century London who was known for wearing splendid black dresses, fails on the simple fact that “Black Maria” is indisputably of American origin. The other, of a large African-American woman named Maria who ran a Boston boarding house and assisted the police in apprehending fugitives, is too cute for my taste and, more importantly, doesn’t explain why the term first appeared in New York City.

The most credible theory yet advanced of the origin of “Black Maria” does tie the phrase to an actual “Maria,” but not a human one. “Black Maria” was a famous racehorse of the day, born in Harlem in 1826, whose exploits were widely celebrated in the newspapers. It seems entirely plausible that the name of the horse thereafter would be sardonically applied to the police carriages, usually colored black, which swiftly transported miscreants to jail.

Incidentally, “paddy wagon” takes its name from “Paddy,” a familiar form of the name Patrick (from the Irish form, Padraic or Padraig), which was used in early 20th century America as a derogatory term for Irish immigrants. One might assume that this use is similarly derogatory, referring to a supposed propensity of Irish-Americans to be arrested, but big city police forces of the period were themselves composed largely of Irish-Americans, so the term may well have simply referred to a wagon driven by “the paddies,” i.e., the police.


Head to toe woe.

Dear Word Detective: I recently was told that I was “besmirching” a friend of mine. When I asked the speaker if he knew what that meant, he said, “No, but, you said it last week and I thought it meant ‘bad’.” I told him that’s pretty much it. Now I am going crazy trying to figure out what a “smirch” is. Please help. — Anthony Jolley.

That’s a good question, and it’s nice to hear that folks out there are debating the meaning, and puzzling over the derivation, of words. Eventually, of course, many of you end up here, so in a sense I guess I’m doing technical support for the English language, just like those nice folks you call when your Dell plays dead. The difference is that I won’t be asking you to reformat your brain and reinstall English 101 unless it’s absolutely necessary. Please hold.

OK, so we have a problem with “besmirch.” That’s a shame, because “besmirch” is one of our most tested and reliable words, having been employed in the English language for more than four centuries. The first recorded use of “besmirch” in print, in fact, was in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1602, although he used an early version of the word and spelled it, along with a lot of other things, rather strangely (“And now no soyle nor cautell doth besmerch the vertue of his feare”).

Today we use “besmirch” to mean “sully” or “tarnish,” most often in a figurative sense, and almost always in the idiom “to besmirch someone’s reputation,” meaning to damage their public image or popularity. In a literal sense, however, “to besmirch” means to soil or discolor with mud, soot or other dirt. But this literal use is extremely rare, and I can’t imagine it being used as anything but a mock affectation (“I say, Madame, your dreadful little dog has besmirched my new boots”).

You ask what a “smirch” might be, and there is indeed a noun “smirch” meaning “a smudge, stain or dirty mark” (and, figuratively, “a moral stain or flaw”). But that noun, which appeared around 1688, is more recent than the verb “besmirch.” More importantly, it is far younger than the verb “to smirch” (no “be”), which appeared way back in 1495 and which gave us both the verb “to besmirch” and the noun form “smirch.” This verb “to smirch,” which lies at the root of all this tarnishing and sullying, comes from the Old French “esmorcher,” which meant to torture or torment, especially by the application of hot metal objects. The change in sense from “burn” to “dirty” may have had to do with the marks left on the victim by the torture.

So, since we already had “smirch” as a verb meaning essentially the same thing as “besmirch,” where did the “be” come from? “Be” is a very common prefix in English, meaning a variety of different things in different contexts. In the case of “besmirch,” it carries the meaning of “around or all over,” so to “besmirch” someone is not merely to “smirch” them, but to give them a full-body “smirching.”