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September 2009 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Hey, according to my Kitten of the Day calendar, it’s still September, so quit whining.  I guess I should do a column on “just under the wire” sometime soon.


Through his On Language column for the New York Times and his many books on language, William Safire, who died on September 27, awakened and sustained an interest in language among millions of readers.  Although he never missed an opportunity to “gotcha” solecisms and silliness in the media (especially when uttered by politicians), he was far from being a language scold or usage purist.  He took an infectious delight in documenting new slang and jargon, and he took lexicographic research very seriously.  I never met Mr. Safire, though I recall speaking to him once on the phone years ago, and his researchers contacted me many times to ask if I had any information on, or an opinion of, a word or phrase which had suddenly popped up on his radar.  I was, of course, only a very small fish in the sea of sources he employed, but he took the trouble to plug my books and this website in his column, for which I am very grateful.

The Times obit refers to Mr. Safire as a “linguist,” although, strictly speaking, he wasn’t.  I suspect he would have preferred the term “philologist,” from the Greek philologos, meaning “lover of words and the study of human speech.”


Onward. As I mentioned last month, our sister site (more of a wife site, really) How Come? has been updated yet again, and is eagerly soliciting questions.  Ask a question, win a book!


Elsewhere in the news, this month marks the debut of a new WordPress theme for this site, Atahualpa, apparently named after some Incan malcontent.  Like most rural hermits, I hate change, so I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make it look as much like the old theme as I can. The advantage of this new theme is that it’s fluid, expanding to fill your screen and making the center column (if you operate at a resolution greater than 1024 x 768, anyway) much wider.  (The old theme looked a lot like this.)  It seems to work fine in all the browsers I’ve had a chance to test it on, though it looks a bit funny on Google Chrome on Windows, which a whopping 3.20% of you use.  So I suggest you folks stop using both Windows and Chrome.  Thanks.

The advantage of having a wider center column, incidentally, is that it makes text easier to read and will give me room to restore the column illustrations I had to drop because of space constraints.  I plan to start posting them again next month, but picking them is time-consuming, so don’t hold your breath.

If you’re looking for something to read while you wait, I suggest Give Me Something to Read.  I keep reading scary articles about how no one has the patience to read long things online anymore, but evidently some of us still do.

I know there’s something else I was going to say, but my mind has gone blank.  Oh right, please subscribe.  I often receive emails from folks who explain that they’re subscribing after “meaning to for years” but just never getting around to it.  Better late than never, of course, but if we could trim that “years” down to something that would satisfy a bunch of hungry cats (not to mention a rapacious mortgage company), it would be awesome.

On a related note, you will notice that some of these columns in our September issue have comments dated back in March or April of this year.  That’s because subscribers saw these columns months ago and already left their comments.  Right now, they’re reading columns on kidnap, full-fledged, the connection (if any) between fare and fair, high-muck-a-muck, to hawk one’s wares, cull, phony, nip it in the bud, gin up, ritz out, and many other words and phrases that won’t appear in this free part of this site for several months.  Why not do something nice for yourself (and me) and subscribe?

And now, on with the show….

Sixes and sevens

Catching up with Marge and Tina.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the term “I’m all sixes and sevens” come from, and what exactly does it mean? — Dean Harris.

It means that times flies, or, as Groucho Marx once put it, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”  It seems like only yesterday, or maybe last year, five years tops, that I first answered this question, but it was actually way back in 1996.  Wow. That was when today was the distant future (the 21st century!), when we didn’t yet have 3-D TV, nobody had iPhone implants, and we still thought that flying cars might be a good idea.  Back when Madonna was a star.

I mention Madonna because she supplied the impetus for a small tidal wave of questions I received back then about “sixes and sevens.”  I was initially puzzled by the sudden interest in a phrase which had, after all, been snoozing in the dusty corners of our English vernacular since at least the late 14th century.   But a quick check of the then-primitive internet indicated that a film adaptation of the musical “Evita” that year, starring Madonna, had produced the wildly popular song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which contained the magic phrase “sixes and sevens” (“You won’t believe me, All you will see is a girl you once knew, Although she’s dressed up to the nines, At sixes and sevens with you”).

“Sixes and sevens” as we use it today actually has two related but distinct meanings.  When we say “I’m all sixes and sevens” or the like, it means that we are confused, disoriented and uncertain, either in general or in regard to a specific problem.  “Sixes and sevens” also describes a general state of confusion and disarray in something, such as a business, that ought to be orderly (“The affairs of the treasurer … are all at sixes and sevens,” 1809).  But “sixes and sevens” can also mean a state of irreconcilable conflict, usually preceded by “at” (“Bob and Bill were best friends, but the arrival of Mary set them at sixes and sevens for the whole summer”).

There are a number of colorful stories about the origin of “sixes and sevens,” tracing the phrase to medieval guilds and Biblical quotations, but, as usual with colorful word and phrase origin stories, they fall apart on examination.  Fortunately, the explanation most likely to be true is also pretty colorful.

A popular game of chance during the Middle Ages in Europe was called “Hazard,” and involved, as many games still do, betting on the outcome of a roll of a pair of dice.  A daring player might bet on the unlikely roll of five and six, known as “setting on cinque and cice” (from the French words for five and six).  This was considered a very foolish move, because the player’s entire fortune could be lost on one toss.  Over time, the phrase came to mean “to take a great risk” in other contexts, and “cinque and cice” became “six and seven” (a roll impossible with dice, by the way).   Chaucer, among other authors, used the phrase in this “risk everything” sense in the late 14th century.

By the 16th century, “at six and seven” had taken on the meaning of “in great confusion,” as Shakespeare used it in his Richard II (“But time will not permit. All is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven”).  By the 18th century, the plural form “sixes and sevens” had become standard, and by the late 1800s the phrase was also being used to mean “in stubborn disagreement” (“[These] differences … have for a long time kept society in Sofia at sixes and sevens,” 1887).


Don’t look back.

Dear Word Detective:  I looked up the word “qualm” and found “etymology unknown.”  What do you have? — Robert Coleman.

Me?  I have tons of qualms.  I have qualms about claiming my shoes as a business expense, for instance, because I do most of my writing sitting down.  I have qualms about not coming up with a better name for one of our cats than “Little Girl Cat.”  (I can tell even the vet thinks that’s pretty tacky.)  I have qualms about feeding cookies to the dog.  I have qualms about voting for judges based on the similarity of their last names to those of people I know.  (Just kidding about that one.  Mostly.)

“Qualm” is an interesting, and somewhat mysterious, word.  It’s mysterious enough that it’s understandable why most dictionaries, pressed for space, would snap “origin unknown” and move on to the next word.  But it would be more accurate to say “origin uncertain,” or (in an ideal world with plenty of space on the page) “origin uncertain, but it seems to be related to a whole bunch of other words although we can’t explain exactly how.”

We use “qualm” primarily to mean, as the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) puts it, “an uneasy feeling about the propriety or rightness of a course of action.”  Other senses currently in use (again quoting the AHD) are “a sudden feeling of sickness, faintness, or nausea,” and “a sudden disturbing feeling.”  A “qualm,” in other words, is that sinking feeling, that pang of dismay, that you get when you realize that you probably shouldn’t have seated your boss next to your brother-in-law at your dinner party.

But there are actually four separate “qualm” nouns in English, which complicates the search for origins a bit.  One “qualm” can be dismissed immediately as irrelevant, the now-obsolete 15th century use of “qualm” to mean “the sound of the cry of a raven.”  We can also probably ignore the 16th century “qualm” meaning “a brief period of boiling.”

It’s the two other “qualms” that may or may not be related.  The earlier, which we inherited from Old English, is “qualm” meaning “death, especially violent death,” and, more generally, “widespread death or disaster,” as in a plague or famine.  The root of this “qualm” was the Old English “qualm,” derived from Germanic roots meaning “torment, torture or death.” This “qualm” is now obsolete, but was apparently closely related to the same roots that gave us our modern English verb “to quell,” which originally meant “to kill,” but was subsequently diluted to mean “to suppress or extinguish.”

Our modern “qualm,” which dates to the early 16th century, appears to have come from the same Germanic roots as the obsolete “qualm” meaning “death,” but its initially milder meaning of  “pang” or “queasiness,” coupled with some gaps in the family tree, make considering these two “qualms” the same word unacceptable to lexicographers.  My personal sense is that they are indeed the same word, especially since the earlier “qualm” (in the form “cwealm”) was used in Old English to mean “pain or pang.”  Any definite answer is lost in the mists of history, as they say, but I think the “qualm” you feel today when you fudge your tax deductions is the same word that meant “mass murder” several centuries ago.