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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.


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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. 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


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A Message from The Word Detective

Dear friends,

You have probably noticed that The Word Detective has become, shall we say, somewhat sporadic in recent months. I need to explain that.

Over the past ten years, as many of you are aware, I have been fighting the advance of progressive multiple sclerosis. At this point, I have difficulty walking, my vision is unreliable at best, and my left hand is close to useless.

For the past two months, however, I have been undergoing a series of tests that indicate a much bigger problem. I have Stage 4 (i.e., metastatic) cancer. The prognosis is not good.

Under the circumstances, I’m going to have to suspend The Word Detective in both its web and email forms. The Word Detective website will remain online for the foreseeable future, but will not be updated. Comments will be disabled because I won’t be able to moderate them.

The Word Detective began as an internationally-syndicated newspaper column called Words, Wit and Wisdom, started by my father, William Morris, back in 1954. My parents worked together on the column until my mother’s death in 1986; I joined my father as co-columnist in 1990 and took over after he died in 1994. This column will have lasted for 62 years.

I am very grateful to my parents for laying the foundations for what has turned out to be a fascinating career. The growth of the internet, which hardly existed when I started The Word Detective on the Web in 1995, has given me readers, friends and supporters from all over the world. Your questions have sparked my own curiosity and learning, and your generosity has kept the website and column afloat.

Unfortunately, my cancer diagnosis could not have come at a worse time for us financially. The effects of my multiple sclerosis had already made it impossible for me to continue writing books, my primary source of income, and in 2014 Newsday (the Long Island / Metro NYC newspaper) discontinued the How Come? weekly science column written by my wife, Kathy Wollard, for 27 years. Although Kathy has also produced four books based on her column, the royalties she receives are minuscule, and other freelance income is sporadic at best.

Meanwhile, our only car, a 1997 Toyota bought used in 2000, has finally given up the ghost, beset by a panoply of ills (steering, brakes, transmission, exhaust, and electrical system). Many of these problems can’t be fixed because the frame of the vehicle, to which those things are attached, is rusted through in many strategic spots. Our Toyota service center has warned us that driving the car is a very bad idea because it could literally break in half at any moment.

Unfortunately, you can’t even buy milk and cat food out here in the boondocks without some sort of car.

More to the point, The James Cancer Hospital at OSU in Columbus, where I’ve been going, is an 80-mile round trip from our house. So we are now struggling to pay for another used car capable of making the trip. My family has been very supportive, but nobody in this picture is wealthy.

All of which puts me in the awkward position of asking for donations through a website that won’t be updated (although it does have an archive of over 1,500 columns you probably haven’t read yet). Obviously, there’s no point in anyone signing up for an email subscription, but a contribution of whatever amount you wish through the “One Time Contribution” PayPal link on the Subscription page would be deeply appreciated. Checks can be sent to Evan Morris, PO Box 1, Millersport, OH 43046.

If you have set up an ongoing monthly donation, please consider letting it run for as long as you can. It will help pay the hosting fees and ensure the survival of the Word Detective website. I also expect to incur some large medical bills down the road.

Note: Subscribers who have subscribed within the past few months can have a refund if they ask.

I will do my best to update this post if anything seems worth mentioning.

As I’ve said many times, I have the smartest and nicest readers in the world, and I’m very sorry our little word circus has to end.

Take care,

Evan Morris


September-October 2015 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


As observant readers will have noticed, this issue of TWD spans two months, rather than the usual one (although the most recent issue was also a two-monther, and a bit late to boot, as is this one). I apologize for the delay, but my MS has made my vision very unreliable lately, making getting anything done quite difficult. On a good day, my visual field resembles an old analog TV with bad reception: constant visual “noise” and fluctuating sharpness. On a bad day it’s all that plus flashing lights at the edges and big patches of fog or (my fave) total blackness drifting across my field of view. My eye-hand coordination has also decreased to the point where I make constant typos even with my new two-finger hunt-and-peck.

To be honest, I might very well stop writing these columns if we weren’t so dependent on the small income from donations and subscriptions. Nah, I kid. Sort of.

Onward. The easiest way for me to read something, oddly enough, is to take off my glasses (I am very myopic) and hold the material about four inches from my eyes. This does not work well with computers, but it’s great with my little old Simple Nook reader, especially if I’m lying in bed. The Nook also makes it easy to read very long books that would test the strength of my wrists (which isn’t great) in even paperback editions.

So lately I’ve been reading The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which is a ginormous (580 pages) novel about a writer, also named Joshua Cohen, who is ghostwriting the autobiography of a tech billionaire, also named Joshua Cohen (who is clearly modeled on Steve Jobs, though this Cohen has developed something very like Google). The name thing is the least consequential part of the book (and the Cohen-Jobs figure is, thankfully, referred to as “the Principal” throughout).

Reviewers seem a bit flummoxed, especially by the long mid-section consisting of transcripts of Cohen’s interviews with the Principal about the origins and development of the company and the technology (“algys,” i.e., algorithms) behind it. Enough of them are puzzled by such terms as “octalfortied” to make me wonder if they find some of the tech jargon (and Principal’s neologisms, such as “cur” for “curious”) off-putting and annoying. But there’s this thing called Google for that, and the middle section actually does a good job of filling out the Jobs/Principal figure as a weirdo wunderkind naif swept along by both the implacable world of venture capital and the moronic inferno of the internet.

Parts of this are very funny, including pages of Cohen’s manuscript complete with large blocks of struck-through text punctuated by the author’s all-caps-swearing frustrated rages. There’s a very sharp bit about a ludicrously pointless (but entirely plausible) home backup server concocted and marketed to take advantage of the Y2K panic, and the brilliant but doomed engineer named Moe, from Goa, who is forced by the VCs to debase his talents by supervising its development. It’s also a nice touch that the climactic scene of the book takes place at the Frankfurt Book Fair and involves a thug apparently inspired by Julian Assange. And what’s not to like in a book that sends a clueless sorta-Steve-Jobs into a backroom poker game to fleece (under the guidance of Moe) Keanu Reeves and Ben Affleck?

Cohen (the non-fictional one) has been compared to Pynchon, and The Book of Numbers did remind me of Gravity’s Rainbow in its form as a bizarre and confounding odyssey, but it’s far better than Pynchon’s own stab at exploring the internet in 2013, Bleeding Edge, which was a painfully prolonged damp squib reeking of geezer.

Elsewhere in culture news, we finally caught up with the first season of Mr Robot, an odd but fascinating series that somehow landed on the USA cable network. I think it’s a great show, but that may be in part because it makes jokes about Raspberry Pi and denigrates KDE as the desktop environment of choice for homicidal losers. I hate KDE almost as much as I hate eggplant. Ugh. Anyway, the catch to this show is that it’s hard to be sure that what you see is actually happening (Elliot, the protagonist and first-person narrator, tends to hallucinate), but it’s a fun ride.

Also very good (actually very, very good) is Humans, a British/US series that ran recently on AMC. You can catch up with the first season on Google, iTunes, yadda yadda.

So there’s that. Our internet still does not, and probably never will, operate in a credible fashion. (For several hours this morning we were running at a blinding 5 b/s. That’s five bits per second, kids. Slower than having your computer turned off.)

As always, and as I mentioned above, we are dependent on the kindness of readers, so please donate or subscribe if you can. And now, on with the show….

July – August Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun. It rained here for 23 out of the 31 days in July. And this wasn’t a gentle drizzle; it was usually torrential downpours that flooded roads and knocked out power in our area, which may have had something to do with the fact that our landline telephone stopped working on July 2nd, stayed out for eight days, and hasn’t really worked right ever since then. Oddly enough, the DSL internet on our phone line kinda worked some of that time, albeit at sub-modem speeds (23 kb/s, way too slow to be useful). But after much sturm und drang with Frontier (who bought up Verizon’s rural accounts several years ago), we finally got it fixed. Sortof. Yay.

The very next day our refrigerator died. No kidding. Unfortunately, that happened right after our weekly grocery-shopping trip. We only shop once a week because the nearest real supermarket is a 30-mile round trip, and we tend to accumulate staples (butter, milk, frozen vegetables, frozen chicken, etc.) whenever we can. So this ruined at least $200 of food. It took another ten days and $200+ to get it fixed.

And then … the phone died again. This time you could get a dial tone, but it was hard to hear it over the crashing static. DSL speeds dropped to 1.6 kb/s, too slow even to send a short email. This is where we are now; the phone is utterly unusable and the internet is a bad, useless joke. I’m gonna have to wait and hope for a fast period to post this update — oddly enough, every so often, usually for ten minutes or so late at night, we’d get 290 kb/s, an actual usable speed. It’s almost as if they (Frontier) were doing it on purpose. Oh wait, there’s a lawsuit in West Virginia alleging exactly that. The comments on that article are a window on Frontier’s business practices.

The real problem with Frontier is that they have no competition out here (there is no cable TV or internet, satellite internet is way too expensive, and even local dialupĀ  is famously unreliable). It’s not the infrastructure; we never had these problems with Verizon. And the fact that it sometimes runs at usable speeds means that the “problem” is way upstream of us. They’ve apparently oversold their antiquated network and would rather spend money on lobbyists than improving service.

Onward. I would have updated this site earlier (during the brief periods when we had internet), but on top of all this I’m having some truly bizarre visual problems, mostly in my right eye. I’m used to the flashes of light, eye pain and periods of extreme fuzziness common to multiple sclerosis, but this is like having an LED billboard at the right edge of my vision, one that moves and ripples and tilts in a disturbingly psychedelic fashion.

So this issue is way late, for which I am sorry.

As always, we depend to an alarming degree on your continued support and donations, which can be directed here.

And now, on with the show….