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Casual / Casualty

 Laid back, to a greater or lesser degree.

Dear Word Detective:  It has often popped into my head that there must be a connection between “casual” and “casualty.” I’ve tried to come up with a logical sequence that leads from one to the other, with no luck. I’ve looked things up in online dictionaries, with ditto. Can you tell me if these two words are etymologically related; and if so, how? — Rosemarie Ekses.

That’s a good question. In fact, I know that’s a good question because I actually answered it way back in the aughts, as we apparently now call them. But for some reason that column never made it into my archives at, which means, in our shiny new cloud-based universe, that it doesn’t really exist. I’m not sure how this sort of thing happens, but it’s a big reason why I still own several thousand real books. Anybody wanna buy a Ned Ludd t-shirt?

That question way back when was prompted (Warning: Teen Flashback Alert) by Buffy the Vampire Slayer noting in one episode that she didn’t like the term “casualty” because she felt it made death sound “casual.” I suppose that’s understandable, although I’d be more worried about how the similarity of the two words might cast a pall over Casual Friday at the office. In any case, “casual” and “casualty” are closely related in origin, but there’s no hidden logic behind their wildly different meanings; it’s all just a case of linguistic drift over several centuries.

The adjective “casual” and the noun “casualty” are both derived from the Latin “casus,” which simply means “event.” Another “casus” derivative, “case,” appeared in the 13th century and originally also meant “event,” but evolved over time to mean “an instance of something happening” or “the state of matters regarding a thing or person” (e.g., “a case of mistaken identity”).

“Casual” appeared in English in the 14th century, initially meaning “by chance, accidental,” a sense we still use in phrases like “casual encounter.” Later meanings included “unreliable,” “haphazard” and “free-spirited,” which in the 20th century settled into the modern “casual” meaning “informal, not fixed or rigid,” “unimportant” and “unconcerned.”

The noun “casualty” first appeared in the 15th century (originally in the form “casuality”) and, by analogy to “casual,” originally meant simply “an accident or chance occurrence.” But by the 16th century, “casualty” had narrowed to mean specifically “an unfortunate event” (thus the widespread use of “casualty” in the names of insurance companies). In military usage, this sense of “casualty” took on the technical meaning of “losses sustained by a body of men in the field or on service, by death, desertion, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary) and, in reference to individuals, “soldiers killed, wounded or injured.” In modern use, “casualty” can apply to soldiers (or civilians) either injured or killed, but often is used to mean only fatalities.

On a slightly cheerier note, “casualty” is also often used today to mean “a person or thing lost, destroyed or superseded” in a metaphorical sense, as in “The iconic Detroit ‘muscle cars’ of the sixties became casualties of rising oil prices in the 1970s.”

Piece (gun)

Shootout at the Golden Corral.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, a member of my circle of friends referred to someone carrying a “peace” around in public. Puzzled, since I had always read the slang for a gun as “piece,” I inquired as to the usage. The story goes, apparently, that “piece” is a corruption of “peace,” originally a shortened name of the Colt Peacemaker. Is there any truth to this? I might think it just as likely that “piece” comes from “piece of hardware” or the like. — Reuben Gann.

I just looked up “Colt Peacemaker” online, and I think your question may have solved a small mystery for me. We live in a very small town, and last summer I was sitting outside our tiny Post Office when an elderly man drove up. He parked, unloaded a rather elaborate walker, and then reached into his car, produced a large revolver that had a very long barrel and looked like something out of a Western, stuck it in an ornate holster mounted on the walker, and toddled off, either making a point or asking for trouble.

In any case, judging from what I saw online, his gun was the very popular modern version of the Colt M1873 Single Action Army Revolver, commonly called the Peacemaker. First introduced in 1873, it was the standard military sidearm in the late 19th century and figured in many colorful episodes in the Old West. But while the Peacemaker played a large role in the history of guns in the US, it is unrelated to that particular slang term for “gun,” which is definitely “piece.”

While “peace” and “piece” are homophones (words that share the same sound), they are completely unrelated in origin. “Peace” first appeared in English in the 12th century, drawn from the Old French “pais,” which in turn came from the Latin “pax” meaning “absence of war or conflict.”

“Piece” appeared in English a bit later, around 1230, also from Old French, and probably ultimately from the post-Classical Latin “pettia,” meaning “fragment” or “parcel of land.” In its most basic sense, “piece” has always meant “a part of a whole” (as in a piece of pie, land, etc.), a thing considered as part of a class or kind (piece of furniture, piece of iron), or a specific example or instance of something (piece of nonsense, piece of writing). “Piece” can also mean “a certain, usually short, distance or period of time” (“a fair piece down the road,” “stay a piece”), one’s opinion expressed to others (“speak your piece”), a coin, or some object used in a board game or gambling.

“Piece” used as a term for a firearm is actually about 300 years older than the Colt Peacemaker, having first appeared around 1575. Initially, “piece” in this sense meant any sort of portable firearm (“He knelt on one knee, and levelled his piece direct at William’s head.” 1870), but current usage restricts the term to handguns (“In this neighborhood, you don’t carry a knife or a piece, you’re dead.” 1956). Interestingly, “piece,” although it’s now slang usually encountered in the context of crime or the underworld, was originally considered standard English (“Captane John Gordoun wes [deadly] wounded with a peece, by one of the Earle of Murray his servants, at his verie first approach.” circa 1656).

“Piece” in the gun sense seems to be a use of the word in its “example of a kind of thing” sense. It may have been adopted because, in an age where arrows, pikes and axes were still common weapons, it served as a general term designating a firearm, of which there were many different kinds at various points. Today “piece” in this sense is euphemistic slang that doesn’t fool anyone who owns a television.

December 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Yay, December! OK, I’m outta here.

Just kidding. Hey, it’s the holiday season, right? Speaking of which, I was reminded, when they lit the tree at Rockefeller Center recently, of the day when I took a shortcut through there on my way to work one morning years ago. Crews were rigging electrical cables, etc., in preparation for the ceremony that evening, and as I walked down a side street off the main concourse (in front of the old AP building, if that rings a bell), I saw something remarkable. It was a real live reindeer, apparently awaiting its turn on some camera, tethered to a concrete block in the middle of the street. There was no one around, so I walked over, talked to it and petted it for a few minutes. Its antlers and its hooves were covered with soft, fuzzy fur. Who knew? It was perfectly friendly and seemed to appreciate the attention. It was awesome. It was like running into the real Santa Claus hanging out on the corner. I briefly considering absconding with the critter, but I was running late and so went on to my office. Twenty years later, that remains one of my most vivid memories of Christmas in New York. Reindeer are cool.

Elsewhere in holiday cheer, for some reason (probably because House Hunters seems to be on hiatus) we ended up watching The Polar Express on the Disney Channel the other night. I didn’t even know we got the Disney Channel, but we do, and boy howdy, what a weird, grim little movie this is. If that’s a holiday classic, count me out.

I was vaguely familiar with the children’s book on which it is based from seeing it in bookstores (you remember bookstores, right?), and I’m willing to accept that the book itself is charming. I also have a long-standing love of trains. But the book is all of 32 pages long and heavily illustrated. This movie is a 100-minute computer-generated bummer, the most relentlessly depressing kids’ movie I’ve ever seen.

The big problem is the “motion capture” computer animation technique used to transform live-action figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, who “plays” most of the roles) into affectless droids in a sort of ultra-realistic cartoon virtual reality. The result would probably work well in a zombie movie (Zombie Santa and the Elves from Hell, perhaps, or Rudolf the Undead Reindeer Goes to Uncanny Valley), but here the result is just plain creepy. It’s like watching an extended version of one of those cutesy and cloying animated pharmaceutical commercials. (It’s too bad; done with high-quality real animation (not CGI), this could have been a beautiful movie. The pure-animation parts, e.g., the wolves in the woods, are very evocative.)

Unfortunately, the color palette is muted and depressing, and padding the brief story out to movie length is done with painfully drawn-out and pointless scenes (e.g., the ten minutes of the flying ticket). The North Pole turns out to look like a cross between a Supermax prison and an Amazon warehouse, and the sweeping panoramas of grim and lifeless North Pole streets are notable for their vacant desolation. Not a creature is stirring in Santagrad.

Roger Ebert loved the movie, but some other reviewers strongly differed, and Manohla Dargis at the NYT, bless her soul, nailed it, noting that “Santa’s big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes … one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.'” Did I mention that the elves — and Santa! — are also weirdly nasty?

The whole thing makes Olive Kitteridge look like Mary Poppins. Yeah, we watched that too. I’m trying hard to forget both these bundles of holiday joy, but so far it’s clearly not working.

Onward. CatCat abides, and is getting better at this “cat” thing. She still has problems lip-syncing her meows, which is a bit unsettling. She opens her mouth and there’s a half-second of no noise, then a weirdly loud mechanical maowrr that kinda sounds feline. Oh well, baby steps, baby steps. My current theory is that she’s from the North Pole.

So here we are at year’s end, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters wish you a happy and healthy New Year. To that end (and because we are at whatever the stage beyond flat broke is), I’d like to remind y’all that subscriptions to TWD make excellent holiday gifts (just note the recipient’s email address in the PayPal form or in a separate email to

And now, on with the show….