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.


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 2006 – 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 © 1995-2011 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


TWD RSS feeds


The tiger in my tank is very tired.

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know why, but the word “car” popped into my head the other day. I’ve lived with it all my life and always taken it for granted. But it’s an odd word, probably short for “carriage” from the original “horseless carriage” name given to the vehicle? Or perhaps from “cart” or “cartage”? Or is it related to “caravan”? How and when (and who) decided to give the vehicle the name “car’? And when did “automobile” (the name) come along? — Barney Johnson.

Good question. Speaking of cars, I grew up reading Tom Swift Jr. books, and I was recently reminded of Tom’s fabulous inventions (“Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane,” etc.) by the saga of Elon Musk’s newfangled Tesla electric car. I doubt that Victor Appleton (the “house pseudonym” of the Tom Swift writers) could ever have anticipated the high-octane ruckus that greeted a New York Times’ reporter’s test of the Tesla’s mileage. It was a story that would have necessitated a title like “Tom Swift Jr and the Electric Car that Pooped Out Halfway to Boston,” followed by “Tom Swift Jr and the Public Relations Slugfest.” Mr. Musk is now developing spaceships, which hopefully will come with really long extension cords.

“Car” is actually a very old word, first appearing in English around 1300. The root of “car” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning a two-wheeled wagon, but the Latin word itself has Celtic roots, and “car” arrived in English by a roundabout route through Old French and Anglo-Norman.  In English, “car” was first used to mean a horse-drawn cart or wagon. The origin of “cart” is, incidentally, a bit unclear. Old English had the word “craet,” meaning “cart,” but there’s some evidence that the Old Norse “kartr” might be the source. Any connection between “cart” and “car” is fairly remote.

Over the next few centuries, “car” was also used to mean the passenger compartment of a balloon, the gondola of a cableway (i.e., a “cable car”), an elevator “car,” and a railway carriage (“carriage” is from the same “carrus” source, as is our verb “to carry”). It wasn’t until 1896 that “car” was first used for what we now also call an “automobile” (“The latter drove with a daring which may have been dangerous to himself, but which never affected his car.”). This is now the usual sense of “car,” and almost every other use requires a clarifying modifier (“railway car,” etc.).

“Caravan” certainly looks and seems as though it should have some connection to “car,” given that a group of people driving together in a number of cars is commonly called a “caravan.” But the root of “caravan” is the Persian word “karwan,” which entered English in the 16th century in the form “carouan.” In English, the word was initially used in reference to the “caravans” of the Middle East, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A company of merchants, pilgrims, or others, in the East or northern Africa, traveling together for the sake of security, especially through the desert.” Later usage applied “caravan” to a fleet of ships as well as, in the American West, what we would call a “wagon train.” By the late 17th century, “caravan” was applied to covered wagons themselves (especially the sort used by traveling carnivals and Gypsies in Europe), and eventually to the small trailers we call mobile homes. Today what we call “trailer parks” in the US are known in Britain as “caravan parks.”

Incidentally, the first generation of automobiles were indeed popularly called “horseless carriages,” but are referred to by collectors today as “brass era cars” from the brass commonly used in their trim and fixtures. “Automobiles” actually predate internal combustion cars. The term (from “auto,” self, plus “mobile,” moving) was first applied to steam-powered vehicles in the 1860s. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, is credited with producing a small steam-powered cart in 1769 and thus arguably inventing the “automobile.” The term was used in the late 19th century for a variety of self-propelled vehicles driven by steam, compressed air, and electric motors.

Many happy returns

Play it again, Sam, until people don’t get the reference.

Dear Word Detective: My birthday is coming, and already I’m being wished “many happy returns,” and it suddenly struck me that this seemed an odd thing to wish. I’m getting to an age where I’d love to be able to “return” this aging self and exchange for a newer, more tech-savvy one! Is it somehow connected to returns one gets on an investment? Dictionary definitions for “returns” as a noun didn’t seem to pertain. Thanks for any light you can shine. — Linda.

Gee, that’s a good question. I know what you mean about wanting to return and exchange yourself for a newer version, and a few years ago I might have agreed with the sentiment. But the more TV I watch, the less I want to live forever. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many Family Feud reruns. If you compare the contestant answers from ten years ago with those from current shows, you’re forced to conclude that the zeitgeist has taken a rather dark turn. Today, for example, in response to “Name something you grope for in the dark” (Um, light switch? Alarm clock?), a seemingly nice lady replied “Your gun.” Don’t make any sudden noises outside Grandma’s door, folks.

“Many happy returns” does seem like an odd thing to say, especially right after “Happy birthday!” I vaguely remember thinking, as a kid, that it had something to do with returning gifts, or perhaps the speaker was saying that the warm birthday greeting was “in return” for good wishes in the past from the birthday-person. In any case, this is obviously a seriously weird phrase. Or maybe not.

“Return” as both a noun and a verb was adopted into English in the 14th century from the Old French “retourn” (noun) and “retourner” (verb). The verb, which arose slightly earlier, originally meant “to turn back, to come back to a place or person” (“re,” back, plus “tourner,” to turn). Both the noun and verb have since, of course, developed dozens of extended and figurative uses, from “returns” on an investment (where your money comes back to you, hopefully having grown in its absence) to the IRS “returns” (forms submitted) in which you bid a big chunk of those investment “returns” a permanent farewell. A “return” can also be a ball hit back over the net in tennis, the act of giving or sending something back to the owner or source, and the lever or key on a typewriter (remember those?) that causes the carriage to zip back to the right to begin a new line. A “Return” key on a computer is now usually labeled “Enter,” but is still often marked with the typewriter “Return” character.

“Many happy returns” first appeared in print in the early 18th century, and it was used not just on birthdays, but on any happy occasion (New Year’s Day, Christmas, etc.). The original, and still more formal, form of the phrase was “many happy returns of the day” (“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years,” 1714), and there we have the simple explanation of the mystery. The “return” refers to the passage of a single year and the recurrence of the birthday; “many happy returns” wishes the birthday celebrant many happy birthdays (i.e., a long, happy life). Obviously, this also works just as well for annual occasions like Christmas, New Years, Arbor Day, etc.

Three times three and a tiger


Dear Word Detective: I’m reading Margaret Leech’s “Reveille in Washington” and came across this phrase: “. . . every blue coat in the audience sprang to his feet, with three times three and a tiger.”  I’m guessing the “three times three and a tiger” means quickly and with enthusiasm, but I’ve never heard the phrase before.  Can you explain it and where it came from? — Barney Johnson.

I think so. Great question, by the way. I came across all sorts of interesting things in researching the answer, some of which I already knew but didn’t realize were connected to this question.

So, to begin with the source of your question, Margaret Leech’s “Reveille in Washington” was actually published in 1941, but was long out of print until it was recently resurrected and republished by the New York Review of Books. Leech was a historian, biographer and novelist, and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for History (which she actually won twice, first for “Reveille in Washington” and then for “In the Days of McKinley” in 1960). “Reveille in Washington” is a history of the events and atmosphere in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War period of 1860-65. According to the Washington Post, the book “remains the best single popular account of Washington during the great convulsion of the Civil War.”

The phrase “three times three” first appeared in print in the late 18th century (“My health has been drank in a bumper, with three times three, by every Club of Tradesmen in the City,” 1789), but was almost certainly common in speech before that date. “Three times three” equals nine, of course, but as a colloquial term it means “a cheer,” particularly a cheer of celebration, whether of a victory in a contest (football game, war, etc.) or in tribute to an honored guest, as in the 1789 quotation above.

Having pieced that explanation together from a variety of sources, I stared at it blankly for a few seconds before the light bulb in my noggin lit. “Three times three” is shorthand for the familiar “three cheers” call-and-response ritual “Hip-Hip … Hooray! Hip-Hip … Hooray! Hip-Hip … Hooray!” Three words, shouted three times — “three times three.” The term seems to have been a British invention, but the “tiger” part comes from the US, where since about 1845 it has meant the finishing howl or bestial roar of a crowd after a group cheer such as a “three times three” (“When the ceremony ends, the scamp of the party … proposes three cheers and a tiger for Mr. Gordon,” 1869). Interestingly, the US “tiger” addition was not, apparently. a big hit back in Britain (“‘Three cheers’ in properly hearty unison, without the hysterical American supplement of ‘tigers’,” Daily Telegraph, 1880).