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Slough of despond

 The worst part was that the pigs seemed to find it amusing.

Dear Word Detective: I recently happened to encounter a former coworker of mine waiting for a bus, and I asked him how he’d been doing. He responded that he had been in “a slough of despond” for a month or two after he lost his job, but is now working again and feeling better. It would have been awkward to ask him what “slough of despond” means, but I gather it has something to do with depression. What say you? — Cliff S.

Funny you should ask. Just the other night I was taking an evening stroll down our rural road when I noticed one of the local honor students driving his daddy’s giant pickup truck directly at me. I stepped off the side of the road, lost my footing, and landed, face down, in a damp drainage ditch. Directly downhill from a pig pen. A real pig pen, with real pigs. I’m writing this, incidentally, in the shower, where I’ve been since that night. I may come out in a week or two.

This sad tale is relevant to your question because Christian, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical epic “Pilgrim’s Progress,” endures a similar mishap (sans the pickup truck, of course). In Christian’s case, the locale is a fetid bog known as the Slough of Despond, into which he stumbles, and then sinks and becomes trapped, weighed down as he is by the several hundred pounds of his sins he’s carrying in a rucksack. It’s a long story, but he’s rescued by a dude named Help and it all turns out OK in the end. The great thing about Pilgrim’s Progress is that it’s easy to keep the characters straight because they all have names (Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Evangelist, etc.) that describe their character or function in the story.

The Slough of Despond in Bunyan’s tale is a metaphor, of course, and Bunyan depicted the Slough as the repository of humanity’s sins and moral failures (“… the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run”). But many subsequent writers, from Emily Bronte to Somerset Maugham to John Steinbeck, have used “Slough of Despond” to mean either a prolonged state of extreme depression or a material state of dire poverty and suffering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “slough” (which rhymes with “cow”) as “A piece of soft, miry, or muddy ground; especially a place or hole in a road or way filled with wet mud or mire and impassable by heavy vehicles, horses, etc.” A mudhole, in other words. The OED draws a blank on the origin of the word, but suggest it may be rooted in the Scots word “slunk,” which means the same thing and is of equally obscure origin. This “slough,” by the way, is unrelated to the verb “slough,” pronounced “sluff” and meaning “to throw off or shed like dead skin” or simply “get rid of,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “peel.”

To “despond,” of course, means to lose heart, lose confidence, become without hope and “despondent.” It comes from the Latin “despondere” (“de,” away, plus “spondere,” to promise), and originally meant “to surrender, yield,” (i.e., “promise away”), but the sense today is of “giving up hope.” Thus a “despondent” person is seriously stuck in the mud and can only hope that helpful “Help” dude is on the way.



Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “swell” as in “That cat lover is a swell guy”? — Anne.

Swell guy, indeed. Try “That cat lover is a royal sucker.” In addition to the pack now infesting our house, we now have two or three who regularly show up on our front porch looking for a handout.

The use of “swell” in your example, as an adjective meaning “pleasant, kind, generous,” is actually a fairly recent development of the word and first appeared in print in the 1920s. “Swell” as an interjection meaning something from “excellent” to just “that’s fine” is even more recent, first found in the 1930s (“‘Swell,’ said Mabel, placing the document in her vanity-bag.” P.G. Wodehouse, Luck of the Bodkins, 1935).

Our English word “swell” is, of course, much older, first appearing in Old English, from Germanic roots, as the verb “swellan,” meaning “to grow or make larger.” (Fun fact: the past participle of “swellan” in Old English was “swollen,” which we still use as the past participle of “swell,” as in “swollen ankles.”) In general, our English “swell” has stuck fairly close to the original meaning of “grow larger” as elaborated in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb: “To become larger in bulk, increase in size (by pressure from within, as by absorption of moisture, or of material in the process of growth, by inflation with air or gas, etc.); to become distended or filled out; especially to undergo abnormal or morbid increase of size … as the result of infection or injury.”

As a noun, “swell” has meant, in general, an increase in size, elevation (as a hill), or volume or intensity (as in music). Long rolling waves in the sea are called “swells” (and, if they’re very deep and powerful, as from a big storm, they are known as “groundswells,” a term now used to mean powerful changes in public opinion). Figuratively, “swell” was used in the 18th century to mean “arrogant or pretentious behavior” (“The softness of foppery, the swell of insolence, the liveliness of levity.” 1751), and a bit later “swell” became more positive slang for a stylishly-dressed gentleman. From there “swell” took on the meaning of “a distinguished person; one who is good at something.”

This gave us, in the early 19th century, the use of “swell” as an adjective meaning “stylish, first-rate, distinguished” (“Why are we not to interfere with politics as much as the swell ladies in London?” B. Disraeli, 1845), a sense which was, over time, weakened to the point that “swell” came to mean simply “OK, fine, nice, pleasant” (“We’re eating at the lake; we could have a swell time.” Arthur Miller, 1947).

“Swell” in this diluted sense is now largely a US usage, and, this being the Age of Cynicism, it’s rarely used except in an ironic or sarcastic sense (“You left your wallet at home? Swell.”), which is too bad. There’s an uncomplicated charm to “swell” used sincerely.

Attorney at law

He’s over there, taking a deposition from a groundhog.

Dear Word Detective: I have long wondered what the word “attorney” actually means. It seems to be used interchangeably with the word “lawyer,” but why do we specify “attorney at law”? Is there such a thing as “attorney at medicine” or “attorney at accounting” or “attorney at landscaping”? What is the precise meaning of the word? — Christopher Valdez.

“Attorney at Landscaping” would be awesome. Actually, I’d settle for an “Attorney at Lawn,” some hotshot in a bespoke suit to mow the three acres we laughingly call a lawn. Spilling gasoline on his wingtips, smearing 10W-30 on his Hermes tie. Pro bono, of course.

It’s true that “attorney” and “lawyer” are generally considered synonyms here in the US (although lawyers almost universally seem to prefer being called “attorneys”). But ’twas not always so.

“Attorney” is derived from the verb “attorn,” meaning generally “to turn over to another person, to delegate, to transfer,” with the object of the verb being anything from real property or a contractual obligation to intangible items such as one’s allegiance to a country or ruler, an important point in feudal law (“The Gascoignes … had sent into England, to shew causes why they should not atturne to the Duke.” 1611). “Attorn” comes from the Old French “atourner” (“a” in this case meaning “to,” plus “tourner,” to turn), and first appeared in English in the early 13th century.

“Attorney” appeared in English about a century later, with the initial meaning of simply “delegated agent or deputy.” This broad sense is now obsolete, and was replaced by “private attorney” or “attorney in fact,” meaning a person authorized (by a written “power of attorney”) to make decisions, invest money, sue people, bid on eBay and other important tasks on behalf of another person. The designated “attorney in fact” in such cases does not need to be a lawyer (someone trained and certified in knowledge of the law).

Counterposed to the “private attorney” was the “public attorney,” or “attorney at law,” a qualified and recognized (usually by a bar association or other legal authority) agent capable of representing clients in judicial proceedings. In the US, attorneys are just attorneys, whether drawing up deeds or defending miscreants in court, but in Britain “attorneys” were responsible for soliciting clients and developing cases that would actually be presented by “barristers” in court, which brings us to an interesting story. Apparently attorneys managed to amass such a bad reputation very early on that “attorney” became synonymous with “knave” (“Vile Attornies, now an useless race.” Alexander Pope, 1733) and “swindler” (“Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.'” J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). It eventually got so bad that, by an act of Parliament in 1873, “attorney” as a title was abolished in Britain and the term was merged with “solicitor,” previously reserved for those who prepared cases for the civil Chancery court.

So, as to your question, you could use a grant of Power of Attorney to designate another person to do just about anything for you, from making your medical decisions to deciding where to plant shrubs. If you paid that person enough, they’d probably even agree to wear a t-shirt reading “Attorney at Landscaping,” and the more I think about that, the more I like it.