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


OK, let a smile be your umbrella. I’ll be in the cellar.

Dear Word Detective: I recently read the phrase “happy-go-lucky.” I was wondering if you could tell us the roots and what it means. — Emily Colby.

I’ll give it a shot, even though the prospect fills me with anxiety. Then again, almost everything fills me with anxiety, because I am definitely not a “happy-go-lucky” guy. Even just sitting here at my desk in my second-floor office, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m suspended in mid-air by wooden beams put in place when Lincoln was president. I’d go for a drive, but I worry about the wheels falling off the car. (That actually happened to a guy I know. On the New Jersey Turnpike, no less.) So I’ll just sit here quietly and try not to think about killer asteroids.

“Happy-go-lucky” is an adverb, an adjective and a noun, although the noun is rarely used today. A person who is described as “happy-go-lucky” is a generally carefree, laid-back and relaxed soul, taking life as it comes, gazing on the world through  a rosy pink Panglossian haze and blithely unconcerned about the inevitable heart-rending horrors the future holds. The happy-go-lucky person’s motto is “Everything will work out and we’ll all be fine,” an attitude often resulting from seeing way too many Disney movies as a child.

Decoding the phrase “happy-go-lucky” seems, at first glance, easy. Here comes a simple-minded chap, skipping happily along on life’s journey, trusting that he’ll be lucky. And that is, in fact, the current sense of the term “happy-go-lucky.” But when the phrase first appeared in print in 1672, it meant simply “as luck will have it,” “whatever happens” or “haphazard,” not implying either a happy disposition or a lucky ending (“You have your twenty guineas in your pocket for helping me into my service; and, if I get into Mrs. Martha’s quarters, you have a hundred more — if into the widow’s, fifty: — happy go lucky!”). “Happy go lucky” amounted to “que sera, sera,” “whatever will be will be.”

The reason for the difference in meaning is the change in the meaning of “happy.” The root of “happy” is “hap,” an archaic English word (from the Old Norse “happ”) meaning “chance, fortune, luck,” whether good or bad. This “hap” also gave us “happen” and “happenstance,” so the sense of an essentially random occurrence was hard-coded into “happy,” and when “happy” appeared in English in the 16th century, it meant simply “happening by chance.” This is the original meaning of the “happy” in “happy-go-lucky,” making the phrase mean essentially  “haphazard; depending on chance and luck.”

Fairly soon, however, “happy” went from meaning simply “by fortune or chance” to “by good fortune,” i.e., “fortunate, lucky, prosperous and favorable.” This is the sense of “happy” used in older phrases such as “happy day” (a wedding) or “happy event” (the birth of a child). The people present aren’t necessarily giggling with joy, but these are, nonetheless, very positive occasions. By the early 16th century, “happy” had followed its natural evolution (people who are fortunate tend to be cheerful, after all), and had arrived at its modern meaning of “feeling great contentment and emotional pleasure,” or simply “glad or pleased.”

The phrase “happy-go-lucky,” however, didn’t get the memo and went on meaning “haphazard” up until the early 19th century (“Messrs. Hubbards resisted [the action] on the plea of having sold him ‘happy go lucky’ (meaning the purchaser was to take him with all faults, for better for worse.)” 1802). But by the mid-1800s, under the influence of the new, cheerier sense of “happy,” “happy-go-lucky” as an adjective developed its modern sense of “carefree, easy-going” in reference to a person’s personality or behavior (“The first thing was to make Carter think and talk, which he did in the happy-go-lucky way of his class,” 1856).


Driving the porcelain bus.

Dear Word Detective: This isn’t in your archives and I have been trying to get to the truth on this word, which is “chunder,” meaning “to vomit.” There’s so many possible origins; for example, it might be a shortened version of “watch under,” which a thoughtful ship’s passenger might shout out just before they vomit over the rail of a higher deck endangering those on a deck below. Or it might have been derived from an Australian shoe polish advertisement which had a character called “Chunder Loo,” which may have been used as rhyming slang, as in “Chunder Loo = spew.” It would be great to know its true origin. I think the ship’s passenger explanation is the most credible I have heard, but my friend thinks its a word made up by Barry Humphries. Please help.– Kurt Goodwin.

Yowzah. That’s a heck of a question. I suspect, based on your mention of Barry Humphries, that you’re in Australia. For the benefit of readers who are not, I should explain that Humphries, Australian comedian, actor, author, writer (and more), is probably best known elsewhere as the creator of Dame Edna Everage. More relevantly for our purposes, Humphries also created the Barry McKenzie comic strip, which first appeared in Private Eye magazine and later produced two movies. Lampooning a boorish Australian “mate” transplanted to London, the strip popularized Australian slang, some of which Humphries evidently invented, in Britain and beyond.

There are, as you discovered, a number of theories about the origins of “chunder.” A Reuters article on Australian slang a few years ago noted the popular “legend” (smart reporter) that “chunder” as slang for “vomit” dates “from the time of the British ships that transported convicts to the new colony of Australia. It was a 12-month trip on stormy seas — a prescription for sea sickness. The convicts were housed in bunk-like beds, where they generally ended up when feeling ill. Anyone on the top bunk who was about to vomit would yell ‘watch out under’ to warn inhabitants of the lower bunks of the impending delivery.”

Much as I love any story that combines ocean travel, convicts and mal de mer, this theory doesn’t explain why the first occurrence in print of “chunder” wasn’t until 1950, long after Britain stopped shipping its malefactors to Oz. It has been suggested that “chunder” is actually military slang from World War II, and troop ships are a possibility, but there’s no contemporaneous account in that well-documented war that mentions “chunder.”

Michael Quinion, proprietor of the excellent World Wide Words website ( in the UK, makes a compelling argument for the other theory you mentioned. From 1909 to 1920, there were a series of print advertisements for Blyth and Platt’s “Cobra” boot polish starring a character named “Chunder Loo of Akin Foo,” and the name apparently did become rhyming slang for “spew,” first among schoolchildren, then service members in World War I. (Rhyming slang is a kind of code where a word or phrase is substituted for another, e.g., “trouble and strife” for “wife.”) From there it percolated through Australian slang until it finally made it into print in 1950. By the 1960s it apparently had become popular among surfers, and Barry Humphries, of course, gave it another huge boost with his comic strip in the 1970s.

Stanch / Staunch / Stem

Your potayto|potahto is leaking.

Dear Word Detective: In 2006 you gave an answer regarding the different meanings of “staunch” as a verb and as an adjective.  I have a different question regarding why words that have similar meanings, e.g., to stop the flow of a liquid, get associated with a particular liquid.  Thus “staunch the blood” and “stem the tide” are common associations. I have found many sites that define “staunch” (the verb) as stopping the flow of a liquid, “especially blood,” but nowhere have I found why “especially blood”?  There is nothing in the etymology that gives a clue. I don’t have a term paper riding on this, just a 16-year old patient with Asperger’s Syndrome who hates words. Can you help? — Michael Kalm.

Hates words? I’m gonna venture a guess that he or she is primarily annoyed by the inconsistency of words, especially the way they wander away their literal meanings when they become part of established idioms or figures of speech. If I say that I’m going to “take the bull by the horns,” you just have to accept that English-speakers have agreed that the phrase means “to confront a problem directly,” even though grabbing a bull by the horns in real life would probably produce more problems than it solved. There’s also the question you mention, of why certain words seem to “go with” others (such as “stem” and “tide”), when perfectly nice synonyms of one of them (“staunch” or “stanch”) sound odd and even wrong.

I used the forms “stanch” and “staunch” above because they are actually the same word, drawn from the Old French “estanchier,” meaning to stop the flow of some liquid or stop up a leak. In modern use the verb is almost always spelled “stanch,” and the adjective “staunch.” That adjective “staunch” originally meant “watertight,” and has since acquired the meanings of “sticking to one’s principles” (“Bob was a staunch defender of free speech”) or “strong, determined.”

“Stem” as a verb meaning “to stop” is unrelated to the noun “stem” as in “stem of a flower,” which comes from the same Germanic roots meaning “upright” that gave us the verb “to stand.” The verb “to stem,” on the other hand, comes from the Old Norse “stemma,” based on a Germanic root meaning “stop” which also produced “stammer” and “stumble.”

The verbs “to stem” and “to stanch” both first appeared in the 14th century, and both initially meant to stop the flow of some liquid or, figuratively, something else that was ongoing (“They were able to stem the proceedings of the Crown when they pleased,” 1713). Both were also used specifically in reference to stopping the flow of blood from a wound, etc. (“So that the bleeding wound should be stemmed and bound up,” 1817). So why is “stanch” now so associated with blood, and “stem” with water?

The answer seems to be simply the precedent set by early users of the two words. As of about 1400, “stanch” was the word of choice to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To stop the flow of (blood or other issue from the body); to stop the flow of blood from (a wound).” It was used in other senses, but most of those are now obsolete, and for most people “stanch” conjures up either literal blood or the loss of something nearly as important (“Petrobras plans to cut costs … to stanch the impact of falling output and rising debt,” Chicago Tribune, 12/19/12). “Stem,” on the other hand, has always been more broadly used to mean simply “decrease” or “stop” (“What can be done to stem gun violence?” San Francisco Chronicle).