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That’s a long way to tip a werewolf.

Dear Word Detective:  We have ancestors with the last name Hussey. The Husseys were a rather prominent family from Dingle, Ireland. My mother was rather proud to be related to them and use to brag that her grandmother was a Hussey, sometimes to the amusement of others. I have long wondered how this word came to be associated with a loose woman. Do you have any idea? — Gerald Sharkey.

Hey, this is pretty neat. I assume you already know this, but there are several web pages devoted to the Hussey family and their role in Irish history. According to one site in Canada (, the Husseys were originally Scandinavian. They moved south to France (who wouldn’t?) and then joined William the Conqueror for the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. They then supposedly ended up in Bath, from where they wandered over to Ireland and eventually became big shots in Dingle, County Kerry. Then they all became prostitutes… Just kidding! Then they became pillars of the Dingle community, and to this day the entrance to Dingle Bay is dominated by a massive stone tower called “Hussey’s Folly,” thought to have been erected by one of your ancestors as a “stimulus project” to give employment to the locals during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. And none of this has anything at all to do with the use of “hussy” as an antiquated pejorative term for a woman considered “loose” or immoral.

The portion of the definition of “hussy” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) relevant to your question is “[A] woman of low social status. Also: a disreputable woman of improper behavior, or of light or worthless character; a badly-behaved, pert, or mischievous girl; a minx.” When “hussy” was more commonly heard (prior to 1950 or so), it was usually accompanied by an intensifier such as “brazen,” “shameless” or “bold” (“That bonnetless, bold hussey round that corner,” 1889).

The use of “hussy” as a pejorative arose in the mid-17th century, but the word “hussy” itself (in a variety of spellings including “hussey,” “hizzie,” and “huzzie”) had already been kicking around in common usage since the early 1500s. Originally, the word “hussy” meant simply “The mistress of a household; a thrifty woman” (OED) and a “hussy” was a good thing to be (“Her being so good a Hussy of what Money I had left her,” Daniel Defoe, 1723). That’s because “hussy” was simply a shortening (or “phonetic reduction”) of the word “housewife.” Who knew?

“Housewife” itself is an interesting word, appearing around 1225 in the form “husewif” and derived from the Old English “huse” meaning “house” (also the source of our modern English “house”) plus “wif,” meaning “woman” (also the source of “wife” and “woman,” which was originally “wifman,” the “man” at the time meaning simply “human being”).

Interestingly, although the connotation of “housewife” was originally, as it is now, neutral and often fairly laudatory, there was a time, shortly before “hussy” came to be used to mean “tramp,” that “housewife” was used in that same derogatory sense of “A frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable woman or girl” (OED). That makes sense, since they are, after all, literally the same word.

Elsewhere in the domestic universe, the Old English “huse” (house) found yet another home in “husbonda,” from the Old Norse “husbondi,” from “huse” and “bondi,” meaning a peasant who owned his own house and land. Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that “husbonda” became “husband,” see me after class.

“Husband,” however, didn’t really become popular until the late 13th century. Prior to that time, the term of preference was the Old English “wer,” which meant simply “man” (and made a nice match with “wif,” woman). The only place you’re likely to meet “wer” today is in “werewolf,” literally “man-wolf” or “wolfman.”

Wont / Want

Pizza is my wont at lunch, won’t not want.

Dear Word Detective:  The words “wont” and “want” seem close in meaning. Seems I have so many questions for you, as I am wont to do, but I want an answer! Sorry didn’t mean to get excited, just wondering if they were the same word at some point and just diverged into different meanings. — Bradford Cornell.

Well, I have good news. My spell-checker (in Open Office) doesn’t try to get me to change “wont” to “won’t,” which I find impressive. Not that I’d necessarily notice if it did. I guess it’s because I use oodles of seriously obsolete words and Old Norse roots in this column, but I’m used to my paragraphs being so festooned with squiggly red underscores that they look like they’ve got a bad case of varicose veins.

So, right, you had a question. And the answer is no. “Wont” and “want” are not now, and never have been, relatives, despite the fact that they differ in only one letter and have a certain amount of overlap in their meanings. After all, if you are “wont” (accustomed) to doing something, chances are that you “want” to do it at least a little, right? Gotcha. Admit it — you were expecting the English language to make sense. Don’t hold your breath, bucko.

The verb “to want” first appeared in the 13th century, probably derived from the Old Norse “vanta,” which meant “to be lacking.” (The Germanic roots of that “vanta” also gave us our modern English “wane” and “vain.”) The original meaning of the English “want” was also  “to be lacking,” a sense we still use when we say that an unsatisfactory explanation, solution to a problem, or other situation is “found wanting” or “proves wanting.” This sense of “want” was, you’ll notice, very close to that of “need.” We also use “to want for” and similar phrases in a negative construction to mean that something is actually abundant (“Mrs. Bumble … did not want for spirit, as her yokefellow could abundantly testify,” Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838).

“Want” broadened its meaning in the 18th century, and most uses of “want” today boil down to “wish for” or “desire,” reflecting a mental or emotional state that is pretty much the opposite of “need” (“If every one of your clients is to force us to keep a clerk, whether we want to or not, you had better leave off business,” Dickens, 1841).

“Wont” is a different kettle of fish entirely. In the sense most often seen, as in “I went for a walk on Sunday, as is my wont,” it’s a noun meaning “habit, custom, routine,” and came from the adjective “wont” (meaning “accustomed”), which in turn came from the Old English verb  “gewunian,” meaning “to stay, to dwell in a place.” Further back, you find roots that mean “to be content, to be happy” and “wont” actually shares roots with both “to win” and “to wish.” Those roots also gave us the verb “to wean,” which originally carried the sense of an infant becoming accustomed to no longer nursing.

Although “wont” today is not considered archaic or obsolete, its use is uncommon, especially in the US, and it’s most likely to be heard used in a jocular or self-deprecating way (“I bought the DVD the day before it went on sale, as is my wont”).

By the way, just for the record, “wont” is completely unrelated to the common “won’t,” which is a contraction of “will not.” The reason “won’t” is not “willn’t” or something similar is purely historical accident. The form in Middle English was “wynnot,” up until the 18th century “wonnot” was common along with several other spellings, and the modern “won’t” didn’t appear until the 1500s. As a matter of fact, “willn’t” did exist, and was used well into the 19th century by some very prominent authors (“That willn’t wash, Miss,” Charlotte Bronte, 1849).


I can’t believe we used to picnic at Bear Mountain. Sounds like the setup for a bad horror movie.

Dear Word Detective:  You were kind enough to answer a previous question of mine regarding “to the manner born” (love Shakespeare!), so here I am again. I have noticed that lately the words “grizzly” (as in bear) and “grisly” (as in gruesome, bloody) seem to have  merged and are being used interchangeably. Can you explain the difference between the two words, and how we seem to have become confused about them? — Mary Funke.

Really? Dat’s distoibing. I actually thought, back in the 1990s, that the increasing popularity of the internet would be a boon for reading and language skills because, back then, reading was the only thing you could do online. Practice makes perfect, yadda yadda. Text is still the bulk of content online, but the catch is that much of it appears to have been written by drunken chipmunks, or perhaps just by people with a very shaky grasp of standard spelling. Oh well, things do fall apart. I used to joke about the inevitable arrival of a “point and grunt” interface for computers, but then the iPhone and iPad arrived, proving that true genius often consists of patenting the stupidest thing you can possibly imagine.

One problem with distinguishing “grizzly” from “grisly” is that the two are homophones, words that sound the same even though their spellings differ. Another problem is that, while the two words are far from being synonyms, they both denote sources of fear and anxiety for most normal people and are thus far more similar in connotation than many other pairs of homophones (pail/pale, tail/tale, plane/plain, days/daze, etc.). Both “grizzly” and “grisly” play in the same mental ballpark. It’s a similar case when so many people type “free reign” rather than “free rein.” Both “rein” and “reign” connote forms of control.

While grizzly bears make lousy pets, their name does not refer to their marked propensity for mayhem (which did, however, earn them the Latin name “Ursus arctos horribilus”). But don’t take my word for the bear’s personality defects. Look up “grizzly bear” in Wikipedia at the moment, and you’ll find Stephen Colbert quoted to the effect that bears (apparently all bears) are “… godless killing machines … The insatiable blood lust of Bears can never be quenched and therefore all must be destroyed in order to save the human race. Recent scientific studies have shown that all Bears are possessed at the moment of birth by demons from Hell, which explains their Satanic behavior. …” That paragraph has, no doubt, already been pasted into dozens of term papers.

The “grizzly” in the bear’s name, however, is the common English adjective “grizzly” meaning “gray, grayish” or “grizzled,” from the Old French “grisel,” meaning “gray.” Grizzly bears are also known as “silver-tip bears” from the silvery-gray tips of their otherwise brownish fur.

Interestingly, the name of the grizzly bear may reflect an early instance of the “grizzly/grisly” confusion. When naturalist George Ord gave the bear a scientific name in 1815, based on the observations of Lewis and Clark (who had returned from their explorations with a dead grizzly), he called it “Ursus horribilus ord,” meaning “Ord’s horrible bear.” Some sources suggest that Ord misunderstood the “grizzly” in the bear’s popular name as “grisly,” meaning “horrible; causing horror, terror and extreme fear.” Ord’s use of the Latin word “horribilus”  (also meaning “causing horror or great fear”) would tend to indicate that he believed the bear got its popular name by being extremely scary, rather than from having silvery fur. In any case, the grizzly is now known as “Ursus arctos horribilis,” meaning “horrible northern bear,” to differentiate it from the closely-related brown bear.

The word “grisly” (from the Old English “grisan,” to shudder) first appeared in English in the 12th century meaning “causing great fear or terror or dread, as of death,” but in modern use “grisly” has been diluted a bit, and generally means simply “scary” or, most often, “grim, frightening and shocking.” In journalism, “grisly” has become a euphemism for “brutal” or “bloody” (“Investigation continues into grisly elevator death,” ABC News headline, 12/11). In our house, at least, “grisly” is a code word for “change the channel.”