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Allay / Abate


Dear Word Detective:  Recently a colleague asked me to distinguish between the verbs “allay” and “abate.”  I remarked that “abate” can be either a transitive or an intransitive verb while “allay” is always transitive, but I couldn’t differentiate them any further. Can you assist? — Michelle Miller.

Oh boy, my favorite thing: two words that almost, sorta, kinda, maybe really do mean the exact same thing. A passport to hours, days, decades (sometimes centuries!) of impassioned arguments on which often depends the very fate of civilization. Whee! If you think I’m exaggerating, ask your friends about the difference between “rebut” and “refute.” Both mean “to disprove; to show to be false.” But “refute” has also been used since the 1880s to mean “to reject an allegation or deny the truth of an assertion,” which is a bit different since it doesn’t involve, y’know, actually proving the statement is false. That’s a controversial usage, and usage mavens have been duking it over this “deny” sense since 1916, but it’s never too late to join the party. Personally, I’m gonna go wait in the car.

In the case of “allay” and “abate,” the difference between the words is, as you say, difficult to detect. In fact, the current common senses of both verbs (to lessen, relieve, reduce, diminish) are so similar that many dictionaries list one as a synonym of the other.

“Allay” is the older of the two words, first appearing in Old English (as “alecgan”) and derived from the Germanic roots “a” (down, away) plus “lecgan” (to lay, also the source of the English verb “to lay”). The initial uses of “allay” were “to put down, lay aside” (literally), or “to abolish, abandon, destroy or overcome,” all of which are now obsolete. From there “allay” toned it down a bit and developed its modern meaning of “subdue, calm, appease” and “alleviate, relieve, moderate (“The bath often seems to allay the thirst to some extent, and always allays the restlessness.” 1907). By the way, although today “allay” is only found as a transitive verb, there was at one time an intransitive sense (meaning “to subside”), but it’s now considered obsolete (“And when the rage alaies [allays] the raine begins.” Shakespeare, Henry VI, Pt 3.).

“Abate” first appeared in the 14th century, derived from the Old French “abbatre,” meaning “to knock down, demolish, kill” and similar forceful things, which was in turn derived from the Latin “abattere,” combining “ab” (off, away) with “battere” (to beat, contend). In English, “abate” initially meant “to terminate, dismiss or eliminate,” but it soon developed the milder sense of “to lessen, reduce or diminish,” which is the common meaning today. A tax “abatement” is a reduction, “noise abatement” laws keep the peace, and a headache that “abates” with aspirin is a good thing. This sense of “abate” also produced the shortened form “bate” in the 14th century meaning “to lessen or restrict.” We now use “bate” only in the phrase “with bated breath,” meaning holding one’s breath in anticipation, which was popularized by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whispring humblenes.”1600).

In terms of differences between the words in usage, “abate” tends to be used for literal lessening of tangible processes or things (storms, floods, epidemics), while “allay” is a bit less tangible and tends to be used in more subjective contexts, e.g., allaying fears, concerns, and social conflicts.

Go Bananas

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. (Groucho Marx)

Dear Word Detective: Recently I came across a video doing a parody report on a football game using computer-generated images (don’t ask me how I did; the internet is a strange place). At one point it mentioned the crowd “going bananas,” and then humorously turned the CGI crowd into bananas, except for one guy, who then turned around and freaked out that everyone else had turned into bananas. Anyway, it got me thinking about the origin of that phrase. I searched your website and didn’t find it, so I figured I’d pose the question. Since I don’t know of there being anything inherently crazy about bananas, my intuition was that it’s a variation on “going ape,” but I would like to know the definitive answer (if there is one). — Tom.

Yes, the internet is indeed a strange place, and, coincidentally, it seems to have pretty much demolished the likelihood of finding a definitive answer to anything. It’s like the Tragedy of the Commons in reverse, where, instead of being stripped clean, the Commons has become a ginormous junk shop. Yeah, there’s good stuff in there, but there are no reliable maps and you’re gonna need a very big shovel.

As a first step in getting a grip on this notoriously slippery subject, I think we should start with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “banana,” which sounds curiously like an advertisement: “The fruit of [the banana tree], growing in clusters of angular, finger-like berries, containing within their rind a luscious and highly nutritious pulp.” “Luscious”? Uh, ok. The word “banana” itself comes from the word for the fruit in a West African language (most likely Wolof). Bananas were first imported into Europe by Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the 16th century.

Of course, the banana itself is a wondrous thing in all its culinary forms; an extended passage near the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow details a sumptuous banana-based breakfast that includes banana waffles with banana syrup, banana omelets, banana croissants and even fermented banana mead. But bananas have also provided a variety of metaphors and figures of speech. To slip and fall after stepping on a banana peel has been a standard comedy trope at least since the early 20th century. “Banana oil” has meant “nonsense” or “lunacy” since the 1920s (“This is pure banana oil. It is not like you to … gibber.” P.G. Wodehouse, 1927). “Banana Republic,” before it was a mall clothing store, was a derogatory term for a small country, usually in Central America, producing fruit as its primary export. “Banana” was also early 20th century theater slang for a member of a comedy act, usually ranked in importance as “top banana,” “second banana,” etc., said to be drawn from a routine where several comedians attempt to share a single banana. “Top banana,” “second banana,” etc., went on to become slang for ranks in any hierarchical organization (“I almost signed on a few months ago as fifth banana at NewsCenter 4.” 1977).

The origin of “going bananas” or simply “bananas” meaning “insane” is uncertain, but it seems to have first appeared in the mid-20th century. It may well be based on “going ape,” given the legendary enthusiasm of monkeys for bananas, or it might simply employ the bright yellow “banana” as a symbol of silliness and simple-mindedness. My money is on the “go ape” theory, especially given the centrality of monkeys and apes to US popular culture in the 20th century.

Between a rock and a hard place

Please don’t squeeze the Argonauts.

Dear Word Detective: This has always bothered me. I understand the general meaning of “stuck between a wall and a hard place” — to be in a situation where you don’t know what to do or maybe either decision will end up with a problem. (I just made that up, I didn’t do any research so correct me if I’m wrong on the meaning.) But where did that come from? Obviously it means exactly what it sounds like, stuck between two hard things, but why a wall and a hard place? Who came up with those two specific things? — Blaze Call.

Good question. By the way, is your name really Blaze? If so, that’s awesome. I had a friend when I was a kid whose legal first name was “Tiger.” He was, as I recall, pretty skinny and nerdy, but I’ll bet being called Tiger all day made up for that. It certainly beat “Evan,” a name so uncommon in the US back then that one of my teachers insisted that I was simply wrong and my name was actually “Kevin.” To this day I have a grudge against the name “Kevin.”

The hallmark of a good metaphor is that it is easily understood, and you’ve certainly grasped the essence of this one. The form you’ve heard, however, differs slightly from the standard version, which is “Between a rock and a hard place,” a phrase which dates back to the 1920s and was coined in the Southwestern US mining industry. The specific choice of “rock” and “hard place” probably reflects the actual experience of miners faced with a brutal job in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The original meaning of the phrase was apparently “to be bankrupt,” but the phrase quickly broadened into the modern meaning of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “faced with two equally difficult alternatives; in difficulty.” The key to the phrase is that “a rock” is itself “a hard place,” so there’s no good choice available.

The sense of being stuck between two unpleasant alternatives is, of course, a common human condition, and there are much older phrases conveying the same predicament. Probably the oldest is “Between Scylla and Charybdis,” drawn from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, written around 850 B.C. In the story, Odysseus, on the way home from the Trojan War (he took the scenic route, of course) was forced to sail between Scylla (a sea monster with six heads on long, snakelike necks) and Charybdis (a massive evil whirlpool who almost, but not quite, slurped down Odysseus). Odysseus also escaped Scylla, although she did manage to eat six of his men. Both monsters, interestingly, are female, with convoluted divine back-stories. In actuality, the myth of Scylla and Charybdis was probably based on the treacherous Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy, a narrow passage lined with rocky crags (i.e., Scylla) and a small but dangerous whirlpool (Charybdis).

“Between Scylla and Charybdis” has been a metaphor for “caught between two unpleasant alternatives” in English since at least 1400 (“In avoiding the Scylla of the mud-bank we had all but stumbled upon the Charybdis of a dredging-machine.” 1860), but given the fading away of education in the classics in modern schools, “between a rock and a hard place” will probably have to do at this point. But fans of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion movies will recognize Scylla and Charybdis in the form of the Clashing Rocks that the Argonauts must avoid in the 1963 epic “Jason and the Argonauts,” very loosely based on the original Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece.