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And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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October 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


It occurred to me the other day that I’m going about this whole monthly update thing wrong. I usually babble on about books or TV or cats for a thousand words or so, and then, in the last paragraph, ask folks to either subscribe or donate to this site. So this month I’m just going to reverse the routine and ask for help up front.

So here’s the deal: about seven years ago, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. At the time I was glad they had found an explanation for the strange symptoms that had suddenly appeared (although some of them were apparent 20 years earlier), but, apart from my left leg not working right and intermittent vision problems, I figured it it must be progressing very slowly and wasn’t going to amount to much. Wrong-o-rama. I had apparently failed to fully appreciate the “progressive” part, and, for whatever reason, it has sped up. It’s only six years later and I have serious  trouble standing, can barely walk, can’t really use my left hand, and my vision only works right about half the time. There are more bizarre and debilitating dimensions to the whole tiresome business, which can be perused at the Wikipedia article. My favorite glitch is that if I do manage to pick up something with my left hand, I have enormous trouble letting go of it. Yes, it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, and it proved inconvenient the other day when I was using a match held in my left hand to light our broken stove. Bad idea. I couldn’t put it down after the burner lit, but I couldn’t raise my arm to get it close enough to my mouth to blow it out. I ended up prying it free with my right hand in a desperate imitation of Dr. Strangelove. Never a dull moment. Perhaps I should rent myself out for children’s parties.

When I first started this website, I sold email subscriptions mostly to pay the hosting fees, etc. My columns ran in several newspapers, I wrote books and articles for other outlets frequently, and I was getting by. Since 2001, newspapers have atrophied (to put it mildly) and book publishing has been remade in Jeff Bezos’ image, which is to say that living on advances and royalties is a thing of the past. So this website and subscriptions have become a far more important — uncomfortably vital — part of my income. Unfortunately, our readers have not escaped the ravages of our new minimum-wage economy, and lately those vital doubloons have been thin on the ground. And it shows. Our house is full of things we can’t afford to fix, including the stove, water heater, bathroom floor (it’s collapsing), the water softener and my teeth. Our 16-year old car (bought used) needs serious work.

So please consider subscribing or donating. Any amount will help; if you have a spare ten grand lying on the piano, that would be awesome, but even $15 is more help to us than most people wanna think about.

Oh yeah, the TV report. There’s been an interesting epilogue to the conversion of OTA (over the air) TV from analog to digital. Many local stations have established digital sub-channels and filled them with old movies and low-cost syndicated shows, mostly from the 1950s and 90s, providing something to watch for folks who can’t afford cable (which is a lot of people). Around here we get, in addition to some really bad movies and horse operas, many of the shows I watched as a kid, including Mister Ed, Sea Hunt, Twelve O’Clock High and my absolute favorite then and now, Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford. Apart from the weirdly addictive charm of these shows (cop cars with huge tail fins!), they’re notable for the number of major stars who appeared in supporting roles early in their careers. I’ve seen Leonard Nimoy, for instance, playing criminals in at least two Sea Hunt episodes.

So there you go. Please remember to subscribe. And now, on with the show….

September 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So there’s this spider who lives by the light over the door to our house that we use most of the time. (There are three doors to our house, which is not surprising, given that there are six — count ‘em — doors into the kitchen.) Anyway, this is one very ambitious spider. Every evening she spins an elaborate, perfect web to catch bugs coming to the light. In contrast to the resident spiders in previous summers, who were satisfied with compact webs in the corner of the doorframe, this one spins webs that cover the top two-thirds of the door, so to enter or exit after dark requires crouching down to nearly knee-level, which is even less fun than it sounds.

Every morning the remnants of the web hang in tatters, torn by the larger insects (moths, mostly) who are caught but then break free, and I knock the whole thing down with a broom. The spider at that point is elsewhere, probably asleep in the doorframe. Then, as evening falls, she’s suddenly there again, sitting in the center of a  perfect new web. The door itself is mostly one large glass panel in a wooden frame, so if there’s nothing on TV I can wander over there and wave to her.

Like any red-blooded American boy, I actually dislike and fear spiders, but living in the country has made me very reluctant to kill anything. There are millions of assorted creepy-crawly things living within ten yards of this house, and there’s a good chance they all know each other. Besides, she’s just a little spider with one little spider-life.

Onward. I’m still in the process of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which is not surprising since it’s 760 pages long and I read maybe 15 pages a night. Then I think about it, and often re-read bits. Occasionally I have dreams based on parts of the book. It’s an exceedingly odd book, often somewhat hard to follow because Pynchon shifts narrative viewpoints, frequently without notice. But I’ve found that the best approach is to just keep going, because things usually become clear (or clearer) down the line. Pynchon is a remarkable writer, and between the jokes and digressions are passages of truly amazing beauty. Reading him is a bit like listening to Bach; every so often you finish a section and find yourself wondering How in the world does he do that? The story of Franz Pökler (an engineer on the project developing the V-2 rocket) and his daughter, who is allowed to visit once a year and may actually be someone other than his daughter, perhaps a different child every year, is both deeply disturbing and hauntingly sad. Much of Pynchon’s work, not just this book, has a subtext of elegiac sadness to it.

Anyway, having read a few of his later books, I definitely prefer GR, as it’s known among the Pynchonitarians, of whom there are useful thousands online maintaining wikis, timelines and very handy glossaries. (One of my favorites is a guide called “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow.” That says it all right there. You can never be absolutely sure.) I keep reading people saying they gave up on GR halfway through, but I think I’m the sort who finishes it and then reads it again.

By the way, not only does my little b&w Nook let me make the print bigger, but it completely removes the intimidation factor from huge books.

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July 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Special note: The Word Detective Online has always been free and always will be free. But we depend on reader subscriptions and contributions to survive. Unfortunately, the dismal state of the economy has caused a precipitous decline in the number of readers who are able to contribute or subscribe, and the Word Detective needs your help now. We are running out of peanut butter and cat food, and that is not meant metaphorically. Just ask Inky.



If you have enjoyed the Word Detective Online over the past eighteen (!) years, please subscribe for $15 per year (roughly four cents per day), or simply contribute what you can. And now, on to our slightly late latest issue:

Wow. July, eh? Well, the good news is that we finally got the 50-foot tree off our front lawn, where it landed after the second derecho last year. We had several people agree to tackle the job, but they either wanted $500 we didn’t have or simply never showed up. Our neighbor Bob eventually conned one of his friends into sawing it up and we dragged the pieces into our north field with Bob’s tractor.

Meanwhile, another tree simply keeled over for no good reason and is currently resting atop the fence around our dooryard. We actually had to chop off a few branches to get in the door. If I could use my little chainsaw it would be completely gone, but I’m not allowed to because I can’t hold a coffee cup in my left hand.

And so it goes. Just living in this house is a full-time job. The other night our lights went out, which is not unusual. But the way they went out was rather alarming; they popped on and off rapidly six or seven times before everything went dark. They came back on about 4 am, and we went downstairs to turn off all the things that had been on when the power went off. We were about to go back to bed when we smelled something funny, and an investigation revealed that the cellar was full of acrid smoke. Bad sign.

So the fire department comes in full force, stomping through the house looking for the fire while we scrambled to round up the cats. It took them (the fire people, not the cats) about an hour to figure out what had happened. Apparently the water softener had been recharging when the power went out, and when it came back on the poor thing had gone into a sort of fit, cycling the well pump switch on and off until it arced, caught fire and melted into a choking purple cloud of dollar signs. Two days and $200 later, we had water again. Yay.

Then a week later the water heater, apparently feeling left out of the fun, up and died. $274 and change for that. Meanwhile, our little tractor broke down and took weeks (and ~$300) to fix, giving the grass a chance to grow to be two feet high. I’m gonna worry about that when it stops raining. Maybe. It’s always something. I realized today that the car is sixteen years old. Old enough to drive itself, right?

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what I do with the moolah from your contributions and subscriptions to this site, what I’ve just described would have been much worse without your generosity. So thanks to all, and, as for the rest of youse, please consider subscribing.

I keep dreaming that I’m back in NYC, living on my beloved Upper West Side. Unfortunately, in this dream I seem to be living in my car. So here I am in rural Ohio, and in my dreams I’m trying to remember how Alternate Side Parking works.

Onward. A few months ago, for no particular reason, I decided to read Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, a sort of hippie-noir mystery called Inherent Vice, which is now apparently being made into a movie. I’m not an expert on Pynchon, but it’s the only one of his novels I can even remotely imagine being made into a film, and  it’s still a stretch. I really wish they wouldn’t try, but I also wish Steven Spielberg weren’t working on an “update” of The Grapes of Wrath. Anyway, I also read The Crying of Lot 49 many years ago, and had started reading his much longer Vineland when it came out in 1990 but lost the thread for some reason. So I went back to it and am glad I did. Here’s an energetic review by Salman Rushdie.

Having apparently contracted Pynchon Fever, I’m currently a few hundred pages into the mammoth Gravity’s Rainbow, which is quite a different kettle of fish, and definitely one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It won the National Book Award in 1974, and was also chosen by the  jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction that year, but the Pulitzer Board blocked the award. According to the New York Times, “… Other members of the 14-member board, which makes recommendations on the 18 Pulitzer Prize categories … had described the Pynchon novel during their private debate as ‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘overwritten,’ and in parts ‘obscene.’ One member editor said he had tried hard but had only gotten a third of the way through the 760-page book.” There must be something wrong with me, because I find it addictive.

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