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 Topica 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


I see you.

Dear Word Detective: Lately I’ve been reading a lot about spies, mostly Russian, and it occurred to me that I have no idea where the word “spy” came from. Is it related to, or maybe short for, “espionage”? — Boris Badenov, Undisclosed Location.

Very funny. You think I don’t recognize you from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle show? How are things in Pottsylvania? Natasha? Mister Big? Speaking of your depraved ilk, have you seen the FX cable series “The Americans”? It’s about two Soviet spies living as a typical couple in suburban Washington, DC in the 1980s, where they match wits with John-Boy Walton. We watched the show for a while, but eventually we realized that every week somebody was going to be kidnapped and tortured in a deserted warehouse that started to look very familiar. Not exactly John le Carre level intrigue. I think this show needs a bigger budget and much better writers.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “spy” (the noun) as “One who spies upon or watches a person or persons secretly; a secret agent whose business it is to keep a person, place, etc., under close observation; especially one employed by a government in order to obtain information relating to the military or naval affairs of other countries, or to collect intelligence of any kind.” The noun “spy” dates back to the middle of the 13th century, derived from the Old French noun “espie,” meaning “watcher,” which was based on the verb “espier,” meaning “to spy or watch,” which also gave us the English verb “to spy” at roughly the same time in the 12th century.

But wait! There’s more! From the same Old French roots that gave us “spy” as both a noun and verb, we also developed “espionage,” which means, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “The act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information, as about another government or a business competitor.” “Espionage” was a bit late to the party, first appearing in English in the late 18th century, and is a fairly direct borrowing of the French “espionnage,” from “espion,” a spy. So “spy” is more than just a shortened form of “espionage,” but the two words are closely related.

Although we use the verb “spy” today primarily in the sense of “surreptitious observer,” one notable exception to the word’s cloak and dagger overtones is the use of “spy” to mean simply “notice,” “discern,” “discover” or “detect” (“Looking out to Sea in hopes of seeing a Ship, then fancy at a vast Distance I spy’d a Sail.” Daniel Defoe, 1719). This sense is a development of the earlier use of “spy” to mean “to examine closely, observe carefully” (“I spied the whole ground, and never saw a beast.” 1893), which lives on in our use of “spyglass” to mean a small telescope. Spies may use spyglasses to spy on someone, but the term comes from this “examine carefully” sense.


 On second thought…

Dear Word Detective: “Tergiversate” is not listed in Roget’s Thesaurus nor in my unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. From the context in which it appeared, I suspect it means equivocate or mislead, though now I can’t recall where I saw it. (That’s what happens to ninety-year-old brains.) — Dan Chasman.

Wow. My brain must be older than I thought it was, because I’ve been forgetting that sort of thing since I was in my late twenties. For example, I used to routinely forget where I parked the car when we lived in Brooklyn, so we always had to allow extra time to find it when we wanted to go somewhere. Then one day the car was, sadly, stolen. At least I think it was. It’s hard to say for sure. That was thirty years ago, and it may still be parked wherever I left it, somewhere near Prospect Park.

I’m shocked, shocked, to hear that your Webster’s unabridged dictionary doesn’t include “tergiversate.” Oddly enough, the free dictionary at does, so there’s that. Incidentally, am I the only one having difficulty pronouncing this word? According to the M-W website, it’s pronounced “TERGE-i-ver-sate” with a soft “g.” Fair warning: I’m gonna forget that in about ten minutes and be back to saying “ter-giver-sate.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists “tergiversate,” and helpfully defines it as “To practice tergiversation.” That seems a bit perverse, but the noun “tergiversation” actually showed up in English in the late 16th century (1570), while the verb toddled in about a century later (1678). “Tergiversation” comes from the Latin verb “tergiversari,” which means “to turn one’s back” or “to evade,” and is formed from “tergum” (the back) plus “vertere,” to turn.

The general meaning of “tergiversation” is “turning one’s back” on something or someone in a variety of metaphorical senses. To “tergiversate” can mean to abandon a cause to which one was formerly devoted, e.g., to quit a political party or cause and embrace its opponents. It can also mean to “turn one’s back” on honor and honesty, to evade an issue or question, to prevaricate, equivocate and deceive. The politician who devotes five hundred words to avoiding a simple “yes” or “no” answer to a questioner is “tergiversating,” as is the candidate who campaigns on one side of an issue and flips to the other as soon as the polls close (the OED lists “turncoating” as a synonym). Given that these sorts of behavior are standard operating procedure in our modern democracies, it’s surprising that “tergiversation” isn’t a more popular word. Of course, “lying” and “flip-flopping” are both much easier to spell.



I see your tabby and raise you two Siamese and a ginger tom.

Dear Word Detective: You mentioned a while back that you often watch Family Feud reruns. I was watching an older episode yesterday and the host, John O’Hurley, referred to the money at stake (it was some sort of special tournament episode) as “the kitty.” For some reason that struck me as strange and I began to wonder what a pot of money has to do with a cat, assuming that it does. Does it? — Bob Harris.

Yes, it’s true. We pay for satellite TV out here in the boonies, and ninety percent of what we watch is reruns of one lame game show. What can I say? Our internet is too slow for streaming movies, and everything else on TV seems to be serial-killer zombie meth dealers or supermodel super-cops. Or the Kardashians. So Family Feud is a nice diversion, provided you stick with the John O’Hurley-era show, which is often intelligent and funny. Mister O’Hurley also spends a lot of his free time campaigning for homeless dogs, which puts him on the top rung in my book.

Before we proceed, I should probably note that the “kitty” you’re asking about is not related to “kitty” as a term for a cat. That “kitty” is simply a familiar form of “kitten,” meaning a young cat, which comes from the Old French “chitoun.” While we’re at it, “Kitty” used as a nickname for a woman (e.g., Kitty Carlisle, of stage, screen and game-show fame) has nothing to do with cats; it’s a “pet” (affectionate) form of “Katherine” (as are Kate, Katy, etc.). This “kitty” was also used as a generic term for any young woman after it first appeared in the 16th century, particularly a young woman of “loose morals.”

“Kitty” in the sense of “pot of money at stake in a game” first appeared in the late 19th century. The initial meaning of this “kitty” was somewhat different, however. The original “kitty” was a sum of money, to which every player contributed, which was used to pay rent on the room and buy snacks, drinks, etc., for the assembled players. The more proper term for the bets at stake in the game was “pot,” which first appeared in the early 19th century, and probably came from the container (whether actual or metaphorical) used to hold the money during the game. “Kitty” is now used to mean both this sort of gambling prize “pot” and any collection of funds used for a common purpose, as in contributions amassed to buy holiday decorations for an office.

Meanwhile, back at the “nothing to do with a cat” end of the question, the origin of this “kitty” has been disputed for years. One theory traces “kitty” to “kidcote,” an antiquated English term for a jail, probably originally a jocular reference to a cage or shelter (“cote” being related to “cottage”) for a young goat (kid). And “kitty” was indeed used in England as slang for “jail” in the 19th century. But no connection of the “kitty” as “jail” to the “kitty” of money has ever been documented.

It’s far more likely that “kitty” in the money sense is derived from “kit” meaning “a collection of items.” This “kit” (from the Dutch “kitte”) originally meant a vessel or tub made of hooped staves, like a milk pail or a tub used to carry produce, butter, fish, etc. This sense was soon extended to mean a carrying case, bag or box of any kind. The standardized contents of the “kit bags” carried by soldiers became known as “articles of kit” or, eventually, the soldier’s “kit.” This “collection of items for a specific purpose” sense eventually led us to the DIY torment of Ikea furniture kits.

In any case, it seems plausible that if a “kit” is a collection of things designed to attain a goal, “kitty” would be a good term for a small collection of money collected for a party or similar occasion. And once “kitty” was familiar as meaning “a collection of money,” it made sense for folks to use it to mean the “pot” to be won in a gambling game.