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

October 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Special note: If you sent me a package at my PO Box in the past month, I didn’t get it. I got the notice in my box, but the PO droids only shrug when I ask where the actual prize is. I’m fairly certain this is not how it’s supposed to work, so if you did send me something, say the word (to and I’ll break out the torches and pitchforks. I know, I know, it was probably just a review copy of something, but sometimes people send me really neat stuff, and it must have been neat, because who steals books from a post office? Maybe it was a Thinkpad T-440, eh? That would figure.

Onward. Yeah, OK, there was no September issue. Keep in mind that most people hate September, so I was actually doing y’all a favor. It was a crummy month anyway, of which more in a moment.

Elsewhere in the news, Weird Cat is still weird. I mentioned last time (can’t really say “last month,” amirite?) that we had been followed home from a nocturnal walk by The Implacable Cat, a strange little creature of no discernible provenance who was apparently firmly convinced that she was fated to live with us. We fed her on the front porch for more than a month while we searched for her real keepers, with no success, and finally let her in when the weather changed and the only alternative was feline hypothermia. She doesn’t have a proper name because we’re still trying to find her a home, so we’ve been calling her CatCat. We seem to be having a problem with cat names around here; CatCat joins Little Girl Cat and Lady Cat in the pathetic name fails of our resident herd.

Worst-case scenario

The strange part of this saga is that we’re not entirely sure that CatCat is, in fact, a cat. She looks like a cat dreamed up by Edward Gorey, mottled brown and gray with orange patches and strangely piercing eyes, a very Victorian-looking critter. But her demeanor is the weird part. As Kathy says, she behaves like something else that is taking the shape of a cat at the moment, but doesn’t have “catness” down quite right. She’s exceptionally placid; within a day of letting her inside we found her stretched out on the living room couch on her back, sound asleep, while several of the resident cats sat nearby staring at her. Sit down and she’s instantly in your lap for a nap, purring with a strange low hum. When dinnertime comes, she doesn’t mill around yowling in the kitchen with the mob, but zips into the other room and waits sedately by her plate. (If she decides to leave a room, she doesn’t walk or trot — she scurries in a weirdly robotic fashion, like a wind-up toy, moving very quickly with no apparent effort.)

Edward Gorey and cat (© Jill Krementz, 1972)

She never fights with the other cats — if they try to intimidate her, she looks at them calmly and hisses softly and they back off. She doesn’t even put her ears back or crouch in a fighting stance; she just sits there. I think it’s safe to say that the other cats are seriously weirded out. Even Marley, who regards himself as the guardian of my office and frequently chases his own brother out of the room, leaves and waits in the hall when CatCat wanders in. Anyhow, stay tuned. I can’t say more right now because she just walked in and I don’t wanna get wished into the cornfield so conveniently located right across the street.

Meanwhile, on the You-Call-This-a-Culture? beat, Homeland is apparently back on Showtime, taking a stab at rebooting after its ludicrous and repulsive third season. And at some point we’ll have another season of The Americans on FX. No one above the age of fifteen takes Homeland seriously (I hope), but I’m sure we’ll be treated to more glowing articles in the Washington Post and NY Times praising The Americans for its meticulous attention to detail in its portrayal of the struggle between Soviet spies and the FBI in the mid-1980s DC suburbs. That is, of course, insane, because the show is a bad joke, mixing wooden acting with absurd Tom Clancy-esque melodrama. Nearly every episode involves someone being tortured in one of the multitude of vacant warehouses that apparently dot the DC landscape. It’s a painfully stupid show, which is sad, because US/USSR espionage during the Cold War has produced some riveting stories (e.g., those by John le Carre).

The real Aldrich Ames in FBI mugshot

All of which brings me to an eight-part ABC TV miniseries called “The Assets,” now available on Netflix Streaming. It originally aired in January 2014, but was, get this, cancelled after two episodes. Ouch. ABC ran a few more parts last summer at odd hours, but ratings stank and the remaining episodes were never aired. This is a crime. The Assets is a truly fascinating “docudrama” about the detection and exposure of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence analyst who sold secrets (mostly the identities of CIA “assets” working inside the Soviet military and KGB) to the USSR in the 1980s. As for authenticity, it’s based on a book by the two female CIA analysts who actually led the effort to unmask Ames. This series is better than Homeland or The Americans by a country mile, and if it had been on a cable channel it probably would have gained the large audience it deserves. I honestly think the show went over the head of the average ABC viewer; it required a willingness to listen closely to dialogue. It lacks car chases, shoot-outs with automatic weapons, supermodels, bombs with big red countdown timers, and all the other cartoonish accoutrements of successful network TV. It does offer a strikingly realistic portrayal of the spycraft actually used in that period and a nuanced and humane view of the Soviets spying for the US who were betrayed by Ames. It’s a very well-made series. You should watch it.

OK, so why was September such a bad month? I’m not really up for explaining what happened yet, but the bottom line (literally) is that our income, already anemic due to my disability, has abruptly been cut by about 70%. We were strapped before; now we’re totally screwed.

And there are, it turns out, limits to how many lights you can turn off, both literally and metaphorically. One of the reasons we want to find a home for CatCat is that now we really can’t afford to feed another cat. And all the things we were working on fixing in the near future (car, my teeth, water softener, computer, etc.) are now in the column marked “maybe never.” So your subscriptions and support, in whatever amount you can afford, will be deeply appreciated.

And now, on with the show…


Feckless and gormless, oh my!

Dear Word Detective:  I have no idea if I’m even spelling this right, but I love the term “Nair do well.” I don’t know if it’s one, two, or three separate words. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood, and my father has been using it for as long as I can remember in reference to some of our neighbors. A few years ago, I asked him what it meant. He replied, “Someone who sits around all day and doesn’t work.” I started using the term “Nair do well” amongst colleagues, and no one has ever heard of it. Is it a real phrase or word, or is my old man full of it? — P.

Hmm. That’s a good question, but before we begin, we should clear things up a bit. The term you’re looking for is “ne’er-do-well,” with the “ne’er” being pronounced as you spelled it, “nair,” rhyming with “hair.”

Meanwhile, “Nair” (capitalized) is the brand name of a well-known depilatory, i.e., a hair removal product (“pilus” being the Latin word for “hair”). According to Wikipedia (caveat lector), modern depilatories use agents such as lime and lye to weaken the strands of hair, allowing them to be easily wiped away. Whee! Wikipedia suggests, quite reasonably, that the name “Nair” is a “portmanteau” (combined form) of “no” and “hair.”

None of that, of course, has anything to do with “ne’er-do-well,” although the relationship of virtue to hair is complex and fluid. In the 1960s, for instance, movie villains were frequently completely bald (think Ernst Blofeld in James Bond movies of the day) and male heroes usually sported either healthy heads of hair or pricey toupees. Today the villains are usually quite hirsute and heroes (e.g., Bruce Willis, The Rock) are largely or completely bald. Go figure. I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis lurking in there somewhere.

A “ne’er-do-well” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A good-for-nothing; a worthless, disreputable person,” which is certainly laying it on the line. “Ne’er-do-well” can also be used as an adjective meaning “Never doing any good; good-for-nothing, worthless.” The term entered English in the early 18th century from Scots, which is why it sounds so cool when you say it in a Willie the Groundskeeper voice.

It’s pretty clear that the average “ne’er-do-well” doesn’t “do well” in the sense of accomplishing anything useful, but that leaves the mystery of the “ne’er.” But that’s not really much of a mystery: “ne’er” is simply a colloquial contraction of “never,” once part of mainstream English but now found largely in regional speech and poetic uses where one dreamy syllable is preferable to two (“Those dogs that from him ne’er would rove.” 1829).

While “ne’er-do-well” was originally a seriously pejorative term for someone considered a bum, scoundrel or worse, in its diluted modern use it’s often applied to someone who has just unexpectedly but persistently deviated from a social norm. Thus the uncle who breezes into town every five years to borrow money or the nephew who flits from scheme to scheme while still living at home at age 35 might well be tagged as “ne’er-do-wells.”


Please do not taunt the Panopticon, Citizen.

Dear Word Detective: Did the word “vicarious” derive from a vicar who got his pleasures sharing the lives of others? — Bob.

No, that sounds more like the NSA. By the way, your use of the phrase “the lives of others” reminded me of a truly great 2006 film by the same title (“Das Leben der Anderen” in German) about the Stasi (Ministry for State Security), the secret police in East Germany. The Stasi made the NSA look like pikers; they had people being interrogated sit in chairs which collected their “personal scents” in special cloths hidden in the seat, which were then stored in thousands of meticulously-indexed glass jars. The theory was that the scent-cloths could later be used, via trained hounds, to find the person. Such bizarre and antiquated methods disappeared, of course, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today we have smartphones, which at least allow us to watch movies on our scent-cloths.

Oh right, you had a question. No, our modern English word “vicarious” was not derived from “vicar,” although the words are closely related.

“Vicar” is the older of the two words, first appearing in print in the early 14th century. The basic sense underlying “vicar” is “substitute” or “one acting in place of another,” and it entered English from the Anglo-Norman “vicare,” (proxy or substitute) based on the Latin “vicarius,” meaning “substitute” (from Latin “vicus,” meaning “change, place or position”).

Almost all uses of “vicar” since it entered English have been in religious contexts, primarily in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal churches. The general sense has been “proxy” or “representative.” In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, the Pope has historically been referred to as “the Vicar of Christ.” Most uses of “vicar” in a religious sense have been, however, a bit further down the organizational food chain. A “vicar” may be simply a priest, or a priest’s assistant, or a priest who receives a stipend from the parish but does not share in the parishoners’ tithes. A vicar may also oversee areas of church operations as the representative of a higher authority, such as a bishop. In secular use, “vicar” is usually applied to someone acting as the delegated agent of a supervisory authority.

To find the etymological connection between “vicar” and “vicarious,” you have to go all the way back to that Latin “vicarius,” which is both an adjective and a noun and means “substitute.” In English, “vicarious” (which first appeared in the 17th century) first meant “taking the place of another person or thing,” whether describing an action done for the benefit of another person (e.g., “vicarious labor” done by one person in place of another) or one person taking credit for the accomplishment of another. The modern use of “vicarious” to mean “experienced by imagining the feelings or experience of another” dates only to the 1920s (“For many of us, who grew up listening to the Stones, there’s still a vicarious buzz in seeing the old codgers behaving badly.” Daily Mail (UK), 5/27/14).