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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.


Much better than our basement smells when it floods every Spring.

Dear Word Detective: I notice that the top-rated word at your “My Favorite Word” website is currently “petrichor,” which I have never encountered before. It’s not in any online dictionary I’ve been able to find. Is it a real word, and where does it come from? — D. Bailey.

Yes, “petrichor” is a real word, and a very cool one at that. But before we get too far, I should probably explain that I started “My Favorite Word” ( a while back as a sort of adjunct to our Word Detective website. At My Favorite Word, you can, as hundreds of folks already have, submit your own favorite word (and, more importantly, explain why you like it), as well as read and rate the favorites of other visitors. I’ve been fascinated by the response from readers, who have sent in words ranging from “autumnal” (“Autumn is my favorite season, mists, mellow fruitfulness, smoke, ripening apples, reddening leaves, the whole atmosphere of battening down snugly for winter”) to “sequoia” explained with a hint of Yoda (“Beautiful, it is. And it’s the shortest word in the English language to use all the vowels!”). We even apparently have a reader whose favorite word is “squish.”

“Petrichor” is an intriguing word, not only for its inherent beauty but because, as the submitter put it, “How many words are there out there for specific scents?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “petrichor” is “A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” If you’ve ever been captivated by the smell of a sudden summer shower, “petrichor” is your word.

Although “petrichor” sounds quite poetic and ancient, it’s actually of fairly recent vintage, having been coined in the pages of the scientific journal Nature in 1964. Evidently, organic compounds in the air, most emitted by plants, fall to earth and combine over time to produce an oily resin, essentially a complex perfume, in the dry ground. The globules of this perfume are then liberated and spread by falling rain, producing that distinctive smell. “Petrichor” is thus much more than just the smell of wet dirt.

In naming this compound and its wonderful scent, the scientists in Nature reached back to Latin and Greek. “Petro” (from the Latin “petra”) is a combining form meaning “stone” (also found in “petroleum” and “petrified”), while “ichor,” from Greek, means “essential fluid” or, in a poetic sense, “essence.” So “petrichor” means “essence of stone,” which may not be scientifically precise but strikes me as the perfect name for that smell.