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Long Bacon

The nose speaks.

Dear Word Detective:  Long ago and far away from here, for my hair is white where it remains, and my beard is full to hide the sparseness of teeth to fill out my jowls, I was introduced to the words of Marriott Edgar by the voice of Stanley Holloway. These recordings played at 78 rpm, and brought great puzzlement to a young Canadian ear. Time and repetition and valiant puzzlement brought a modicum of understanding, but one phrase remains lost to me to this day. The tale title is “Three Ha’pence a Foot” and the expression for which I seek assistance is “So Sam put his tongue out at Noah and Noah made long bacon at Sam.”  What say ye, sir, to this, my tale?  Hopefully I remain expectant of an answer swifter than the back hand of my Mam when I asked her if it were a rude comment. — Mikey, who is much older than the name suggests.

Have no fear.  I almost never physically strike my readers, and I can’t imagine what your mother was thinking.  But I must note that one need not be elderly to remember Stanley Holloway’s wonderful recordings of Marriott Edgar’s monologues rendered in a heavy Northern English accent.  I especially adored “The Lion and Albert,” the story of a lad visiting the zoo who annoyed the King of Beasts with his “stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle” (horse’s head handle) so much that he was “et” right up.  (“Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence, And didn’t know what to do next, Said, ‘Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert,’ And Mother said ‘Eeh, I am vexed!'”).  An apparently complete collection of Marriott’s monologues, I am happy to report, is available at

In “Three Ha’pence a Foot,” a builder named Sam Oglethwaite is arguing with Noah over the price of maple for Noah’s ark, and negotiations stall over Sam’s stubborn insistence on three half-pence per foot.  Sam’s deployment of his tongue as an insult is familiar to any schoolchild, but Noah’s “long bacon” must have puzzled even many of Marriott’s contemporaries.

Evidently, “long bacon” is Northern English slang for “thumbing one’s nose” or “cocking a snook,” but done with two hands.  “Cocking a snook” is performed by spreading the fingers of one hand, touching the tip of your nose with your thumb while sighting your opponent along the tips of your other fingers, and waggling your fingers in the most annoying way possible.  “Long bacon” adds the other hand for extra emphasis, thumb touching the little finger of the first.

Cocking a snook.

Such a gesture is certainly elaborate and “long” as such things go, but why “bacon”?  My guess is that it’s the resemblance of the finished product to a crisp strip of bacon with its waving ridges.  It’s less clear why the single-handed version is called “cocking a snook,” but the “cocking” may refer to the “comb” on the head of a rooster (which vaguely resembles a hand with extended fingers), and “snook” may be related to “snout.”


Reboot your mindset.

Dear Word Detective:  The current use of the word “paradigm” puzzles me.  My dictionary states the grammatical definition which is easily understood, and a second definition:  “an example; pattern.”  My dictionary is fairly old.  The newscasters and politicians always seem to use the phrase “new paradigm.”  Do they mean a “new pattern” and are just using a fancier word?  Or is there another meaning, by usage, that I am not aware of?  Fortunately, its use seems to be diminishing.  It is like the word “vet” which is popular these days and “to parse” and that immortal “at this point in time” which seems to be locked into the language, much to my annoyance. — MMU.

I feel your pain.  Actually, I’m somewhat ambivalent (which is better than being firmly ambivalent, I suppose) about the buzzwords and catchphrases that infest what passes for public discourse these days.  On the one hand, it’s fascinating to watch these creations pop up suddenly and stride confidently into the spotlight, all new and trendy, with the glow of the in-crowd and the magical power to make boring people sound, if only momentarily, smarter than they are.  Where would dinner parties be without them?  On the other, there’s nothing more tiresome and pathetic than a buzzword or phrase that has stayed too long at the ball.  At the end of the day, “at the end of the day” just sounds moldy and lame.

One also has to wonder whether even ten percent of the people who use these words have a clue as to their original meanings.  Do the newscasters who yammer on about “vetting” political candidates know that they are likening the process to having a cow examined by a veterinarian?  Do the pundits who “parse” (from the Latin “pars orationis,” parts of speech) politicians’ speeches actually diagram the sentences?

OK, geezer mode off.  When “paradigm” (pronounced PARA-dime) first appeared in English in the late 15th century, it was used in its original Greek sense of “pattern, model or example” (from “paradeiknynai,” literally “to show side-by-side”).  By the mid-17th century, “paradigm” had become a grammatical term meaning “a set of examples illustrating forms in an inflected language,” such as the “amo, amas, amat” (“I love, you love, he/she/it loves”) conjugation table familiar to first-year Latin students.

In 1962, however, historian Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, invoked “paradigm” to mean “world view,” and highlighted the role of a “paradigm shift” in transforming consciousness (as when the accepted “paradigm” of an Earth-centered universe gave way to a more accurate view of the cosmos).  “Paradigm” was inevitably pressed into service by politicians for less exalted uses, and during George H.W. Bush’s presidential administration there was much talk of a “new economic paradigm” (leading Dick Darman, Bush’s skeptical budget director, to quip “Brother, can you paradigm?”).

In today’s usage, “paradigm” can mean anything from “underlying philosophical principles forming a basis for making social policy decisions” to “marketing plan for the new breakfast sandwich.”  If “paradigm” is fading, as I agree it seems to be, it’s at the end of a long day indeed, and not a moment too soon.

Piece of Cake

Forget Shakespeare.  Cake is the pinnacle of human culture.

Dear Word Detective:  Probably everyone knows what “a piece of cake” means.  As a figure for something that is not only done easily, but is also enjoyable, it is a pretty  straightforward metaphor.  My question is about its origin.  The first I recall hearing it was in the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the musical “Mary Poppins.”  When you find the fun in a  particular job, so the song says, “then every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.”  Is this the origin of the phrase, or was it in use previously?  (Apologies for setting your head  humming.) — Charles Anderson.

No problem.  That song can’t get stuck in my head because I’ve never heard the song.  That’s right, I’ve never seen “Mary Poppins.”  I’ve also never seen “The Sound of Music.”  Appalling, I know, but it gets worse.  I’ve also never seen”Titanic,” “Shrek” (any of them, or any big-screen cartoon, for that matter), or any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.  You name it, I haven’t seen it.  Come Saturday night, you’ll find us poring over the newspaper, deciding what movie not to see.

But while I’m not exactly an avid movie-goer, I do love cake, and, judging by the number of cake metaphors, proverbs and aphorisms out there, the English language agrees with me.  We speak of something easily accomplished as a “cakewalk,” we say that something extraordinary “takes the cake,” and we even caution that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” as a way of saying that life demands choices.  And yes, I know that “purists” insist that “you can’t eat your cake and have it too” is the supposedly “proper” form.  But I’d like to point out that the last person to make a stink about that (Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber) is spending his life in a very small room.  (See the Wikipedia entry on the phrase for the story.)

To say that something is “a piece of cake,” of course, is to say that it is very easy or pleasant, or, often, pleasantly easy.  If, for example, I brace myself going in the door of the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license, but find that there are only three people in line, I would almost certainly declare “Piece of cake!” (after recovering from fainting).  Of course,  just how “cakey” a task is depends on whether one is the “doer” or “sender.”  I learned early on in my work career that any boss who described an assignment as “a piece of cake” was almost certainly lying.

“Piece of cake” had been around for a while before Mary Poppins sang that song.  The phrase first appeared in print in the 1930s, and its exact origin is uncertain.  One theory traces it to the “cakewalk,” a contest popular in the African-American community in the 19th century, in which couples competed strolling arm in arm, with the prize, a cake, being awarded to the most graceful and stylish team (giving us the phrase “to take the cake”).  Although the “cakewalk”  demanded skill and grace, the term came to be used as boxing slang for an easily-won fight, and then for any “sure thing.”  It is very possible that “piece of cake” followed a similar route from the sophisticated art of “cakewalking” to meaning “the easiest thing imaginable.”