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It was here a minute ago.

Dear Word Detective: The word “purloin” popped into my head the other day — I don’t know why, no larcenous intentions and I wasn’t reading Poe — and two thoughts about the word leaped into my mind as well: 1) the English language has a lot of words for “stealing” and that at one time there must have been very nuanced differences about what was being stolen and who was stealing it; and 2) this word will disappear shortly (if it hasn’t already) since nobody uses it any more and I suspect most people under the age of 30 are unfamiliar with it. Could you shed some light on the origins and nuances of “purloin”? And any thoughts you have about why we need so many ways to say something was stolen would be appreciated. — Barney Johnson.

Ah yes, “The Purloined Letter,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe (19th century orangutan fancier and noted gloom-bunny), in which detective C. Auguste Dupin goes postal in pursuit of an answer to the age-old riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” No, wait, that was Lewis Carroll. I actually read that Poe story in school, but I didn’t understand it any more then than I understand the Wikipedia summary of it now.

You’re probably right about the fading fortunes of “purloin,” though with all the MFA diplomas being handed out these days, perhaps the Starbucks/MacBook set will make it their pet and keep it alive. “Purloin” is a nice, refined word for “steal,” carrying connotations of silence and stealth; a moment’s inattention and the pearls are mysteriously just … gone. “Purloin” means never having to clean up broken glass, no gunshots in the dark, more puzzlement than trauma.

“Purloin” dates back to the 14th century and comes from the Old French “porloigner,” meaning “to prolong, postpone, put or be far away” (“por,” forward, plus “loing,” at a distance, from the Latin “longus”). When “purloin” first appeared in English, it meant “to entice away” (a servant, for example), “to kidnap” (“Some odd fellows went skulking up and down London-streets, and with Figs and Reasons allur’d little Children, and so pourloyn’d them away from their Parents.” 1645), or simply “to conceal” something from public view. By 1475, “purloin” had settled on its modern definition of, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “To make away with, misappropriate; to steal, esp. under circumstances which involve a breach of trust; to pilfer, filch.” The OED notes that many modern uses of the term are “humorous,” which, sadly, is often the prelude to obscurity.

Why so many words for “to steal”? Lexicographers will tell you that there’s no such thing as a true synonym, and popular usage inevitably lends shades of meaning to words that, in a broad sense, mean the same thing. The end result of “purloin,” “lift,” “pilfer,” “filch,” “embezzle,” “heist,” “rip,” “boost,” “swipe” and the like is the same (the thing is gone), but the style or manner of the crime varies with the term. To “pilfer” or “filch” is usually a surreptitious endeavor; a “heist” is a major production and often involves George Clooney.

Sometimes the obscurity of the terminology is a defensive tactic. In ages past thieves were said to “pull,” “smug,” “nobble,” “reef,” “hoist” “mitch,” “nim” and “rabbit.” Many of these more exotic terms were thieves’ argot, an underground language intended to ward off or weed out both the uninitiated and badge-bearing strangers.

Spider (float)

Great moments in antipodean product naming.

Dear Word Detective: My question is this: for as long as I’ve known them, soft drink floats have been called “spiders” in Australia (perhaps elsewhere in the world as well) and I was wondering if you could track down the reason WHY they’re called “spiders.” — David.

That’s a great question, and perfectly timed as well, because today is opening day of spider season here at Go Figure Farm (“When the weather warms, beware what swarms”). After fifteen years here, I’ve become somewhat used to the little nippers, but I still take a powder when I notice a cat staring at the ceiling above my head. Probably the best reason to have cats.

Spiders are, of course, arachnids of the order Araneae, having eight legs, fangs (often poisonous) and, in many cases, the ability to spin webs of varying sophistication. The word “spider” itself comes from the Middle English “spithre,” derived from Old English “spinnan,” meaning “to spin.” Other arachnids include mites, ticks, scorpions and “Harvestmen” (Opiliones), also known as “daddy longlegs,” which are not spiders but are (take it from me) incredibly stupid. We get these things by the dozens in our house every fall, and all you can do is pick them up gently and toss them out the door.

I had never heard of an ice cream float being called a “spider,” but neither have I ever been to Australia. Nothing against Australia, you understand; it’s just I don’t like airplanes and I’m a lousy swimmer. Fortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has heard the term, and dates its first appearance in print to the mid-19th century (“They asked us what we would have to drink; we had a spider each.” 1854).

There’s a catch to this example, however, and it applies to all such uses of “spider” in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. A “spider” at that time was an alcoholic drink made from lemonade and brandy (or similar ingredients) (“The favourite tipple of the bushman was mixed brandy and ginger beer — a ‘spider’, as it was called.” 1888). The kind of “spider” involving a scoop of ice cream in a glass of either soda or seltzer with flavoring (called, respectively, a “float” and an “ice cream soda” in most of the US) didn’t make it into print until 1941 (“‘You’ve had your drink, so now you’ve got to buy us all a spider at Smith’s’ … I didn’t want to go back and sit in Smith’s and drink silly coloured muck with ice-cream floating in it.”).

There are various theories floating around about the origin of “spider” in the “ice cream soda” sense, the most plausible involving the “spidery” appearance of the ice cream as it slowly dissolves. But I think it’s more likely that the dessert drink simply got its name by allusion to the “two things mixed together” alcoholic drink. That, of course, raises the question of where the bar drink got its name.

One of the earliest (1859) citations for the term in the OED offers an explanation while noting then current names for the drink: “Shandy-gaff, or spiders, — the latter to clear their throats of flies as they said.” The joke of swallowing a spider to catch a fly previously swallowed is found in a fairly famous children’s song (“There Was Once an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” recorded by Burl Ives in 1953), but it’s likely that the idea is much, much older. In any case, the hot, dry climate of the Australian outback, and the attendant flies, almost certainly explain both the name and the popularity of these liquid “spiders.”


I don’t care for their music, but “Steely Dan” would be a great name for a candidate.

Dear Word Detective: Political commentary is rife with the phrase “rock-ribbed,” but it’s almost completely absent from the modern vocabulary otherwise. What gives, and how did the GOP get a monopoly on this evocative term? — Ben.

You’re right. A brief sojourn through a Google News search for the term produces dozens of examples of “rock-ribbed Republican,” and also a nearly equal incidence of “rock-ribbed conservative.” But “rock-ribbed Democrat” produces exactly five hits, and “rock-ribbed liberal” turned up nada. Totals for all of them are higher on the general web, with more than 5,400 hits for “rock-ribbed Republican,” but those are edged out by “rock-ribbed liberal” at more than 9,000. Many of the “liberal” sites, however, are clearly asserting themselves as “rock-ribbed” in response to perceived Republican/conservative hegemony over the term. Good luck with that.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first appearance of “rock-ribbed” in print was in 1776, which I suspect will strike some people as significant. The term itself, however, lacked its modern meaning; at that point it simply meant “Of a landscape: characterized or dominated by rock formations; rocky, craggy” (OED). Such vistas are often described as “forbidding” or “bleak” (“Nearer and nearer we drew to the rock-ribbed, ice-encompassed shore.” 1900).

By the late 19th century here in the US, however, we were using “rock-ribbed” to mean “uncompromising, unyielding, resolute,” by analogy to actual rocks, which are notably resistant to fads, panics, whims, or much of anything, really. As applied to individuals, the implication is that the person is not merely resolute, but so sturdy in moral fiber — ribs of rock, spine of steel — as to defy any challenge (“The rock-ribbed republican clergy men … waited on Mr. Blaine yesterday to assure him of their ‘loyalty’ and ‘allegiance’.” 1884).

As to how the Republican Party in the US cornered the “rock-ribbed” franchise (if they indeed have), I think several factors might be at work. One is that the metaphor lends itself more to a conservative ideology and a high value placed on tradition. Another is that a rocky landscape suggests a rural or western setting, also historically amenable to conservatism. And lastly, especially in the case of “rock-ribbed Republican,” there’s the simple, seductive alliteration of the phrase, certainly as opposed to “rock-ribbed Democrat,” which sounds like a tongue-twister. The role of the news media in promoting such catchy tropes, preferably alliterative, is also obvious, as evidenced by this 1950 quotation from the Manchester Guardian in the UK: “The dyed-in-the-wool Democrat can be fanatical in devotion to his party’s creed and traditions. So can the rock-ribbed Republican.”