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Break a leg, again.

Merde to spare.

Dear Word Detective: You’ve addressed the phrase “break a leg” before. But lately, I’ve seen an image being shared quite a lot on social media which explains the phrase as follows: “This theatrical expression originated in the Music Hall/Vaudeville days around the 1800’s [sic]. Producers would have on stand-by as many different acts as possible to fill the bill. It was not viable to pay every act, so if they didn’t actually appear on stage, or get to break the visual plane of the leg line (wing masking), they received no fee. ‘Break a leg’ became a good luck wish that you would be paid for a performance.” This explanation makes more sense than the theory that performers used to break the wooden legs of the stage at the end of a successful performance (which theory you’ve debunked in a previous column) but it still strikes me a specious. It fails to address the German aviators in World War I who wished each other a “broken neck and a broken leg,” or French dancers who wish each other “Merde!” before going onstage. It fails to address the fact that, as you’ve pointed out before, the phrase “break a leg” doesn’t appear in print until 1957. And it fails to recognize that most human cultures through history have boasted strange customs based on the reverse psychology of not wanting to jinx things — and that these sorts of traditions aren’t limited to the performing arts. Can you address “break a leg” again and put this new pseudo-historical explanation to rest? — John Keogh

You’ve done a good job of summarizing the current state of play on “break a leg” in your question, and I must admit that I hadn’t heard the “wing mask” sense of “leg” theory in connection with the phrase. That use of “leg” to mean a long, thin drape on either side of the stage is definitely authentic theater terminology, but that doesn’t, of course, make it the source of the phrase.

It’s very difficult to prove a negative (i.e., that any particular story about “break a leg” isn’t true), but it is possible to make a judgment on what is most likely. In this case, we have an utterly unattested, unverified story that probably rests on nothing more than the coincidence of a bit of stage furnishings being called “legs.” On the other we have a field (the theater) which has always been rife with superstitions (e.g., the prohibition against saying the name of “the Scottish play” (Macbeth) in the backstage “green room”). There is also the ancient fear of tempting fate by wishing someone good luck, as evidenced in the traditions of many cultures for thousands of years. And finally we have the very similar phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch” (“leg and neck break”) from a completely unrelated field (aviation during World War I). (As a side note, although “break a leg” didn’t appear in print until the 1950s, anecdotal evidence indicates it was popular in the theater in the early years of the 20th century.)

Put that all together and I think we can say that “Break a leg” is clearly a form of a very old tactic of wishing someone embarking on a chancy mission “good luck” by seeming to curse them with “bad” luck so as to confuse the demons, deities, etc., in charge. In this case we could justifiably make an “argument from continuity” that if a ritual appears to be highly similar to a family of rituals practiced throughout human history, what we’ve found is simply a variation of that long-established ritual.


Grandpa, what’s a “train”?

Dear Word Detective: Recently, the Kingston Trio Song “To Morrow” popped into my head (if a man of your discerning tastes hasn’t heard it, you really must). In it the narrator speaks of being “guyed” in the sense of being fooled or chivvied, the most current equivalent meaning I would imagine would be “messed with.” Any idea as to the origin of the expression? — Fred.

OK, I listened to “To Morrow” on YouTube. It’s interesting and clever, in a folk-songy way, though it has way too many banjos for my taste (i.e., one). It’s about a man who wants to take a train “to Morrow” (a town in Ohio) today and to return “tomorrow.” The song itself is his dialogue with the ticket-seller, which takes the form of an extended misunderstanding similar to the classic Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine.

The lyrics to the song I found on the internet read “So I went down to the station for my ticket and applied for tips regarding Morrow not expecting to beguiled.” Since “beguiled” is an adjective, it doesn’t fit grammatically, so that’s probably a bad transcription. But the phrase could be either “be guiled” (the antiquated verb “guile” meaning “deceive,” as in “beguiled”) or “be guyed.” After listening to the song a few times, it really sounds like “be guyed,” which also scans and rhymes better with “applied.”

Assuming that “be guyed” is correct, we’re dealing with the verb “to guy,” which comes from the noun “guy,” which originally meant an effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burned in Britain on November 5 every year. (Guy Fawkes, you may remember, was involved in the unsuccessful Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.) Over the centuries the sense of “effigy” in “guy” broadened to mean “any grotesque character,” and then simply “a person,” as in “What do you guys want for dinner?”

The verb “to guy” originally meant to parade around with an effigy of Fawkes on the fifth of November, but by the mid-19th century “guy” was also used to mean “to mock or ridicule.” “To guy” was originally theater slang meaning to overplay one’s part for laughs or to sabotage another actor’s performance (“With all this at stake, some wanton actor deliberately ‘guys’ his part and overturns the patient care of his comrade.” 1890). That would certainly satisfy my definition of “mess with.” This use of “guy” is considered antiquated, but the song itself was copyrighted in 1898, so that still fits.

Incidentally your use of the fine word “chivvy,” meaning “to harass or worry,” may puzzle some readers, as it’s well-known in Britain but fairly rarely seen in the US. It’s actually a form of the verb “to chevy,” meaning “to chase,” which comes in turn from the noun “chevy,” originally a cry used as an exhortation when hunting with hounds (“When you are ready, I am … with a Hey Ho Chivey, and likewise with a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy.” Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865). “Tantivy,” by the way, is another very old (1700s) English word meaning “to ride full tilt” (probably imitating the sound of a galloping horse’s hooves). It’s also the nickname of a character (Oliver Mucker-Maffick) in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The “chevy” comes from “chevy chase,” meaning “a running pursuit,” possibly from a famous old song (“The Ballad of Chevy Chase”) describing a 14th century hunt on the Scotland/English border that turned into a battle. “Chevy Chase” is named in the song as the location of the fracas, but the actual place was probably named “Cheviot Chase.” Several places in the US are named “Chevy Chase,” the most notable being in Maryland. The “comedic actor” Chevy Chase is actually named Cornelius; “Chevy” was a childhood nickname his grandmother thought cute.



Dear Word Detective: I was strolling through our local tire shop recently when one of those “Why hasn’t this occurred to me before?” questions popped into my head: is there any connection between the “tires” a car runs on and the word “tired,” meaning fatigued? If so, is it because they eventually wear out, or what? — Dan.

Your “local tire shop,” eh? You have just one? Around here we have at least one every hundred yards or so; tire shops are almost as numerous as nail salons. One wonders why no one has yet combined the businesses into a shop called “Tires & Nails.” On second thought, I think I know.

There is, alas, no relation between the rubber doughnut that cars and truck roll on called a “tire” and the verb “to tire,” meaning to make or become fatigued (of which “tired” is a participial form). But both these “tires” are interesting words in their own right, so we’ll take that fact as a consolation prize.

The verb “to tire” is the older of the two, first appearing in Old English as “tiorian,” meaning “to diminish, come to an end, fail.” The origins of this “tire” are uncertain, but it may come from an Indo-European root with the sense “to lack.” By the 15th century “tire” was in common use in both intransitive and transitive forms, meaning, respectively, “to become exhausted” and “to make weary, to exhaust.” The early senses of both forms referred to literal physical exhaustion from hard labor or exertion, but by the 16th century our modern figurative uses of “tire” appeared, meaning “to be exhausted by repetition or excess; to become sick of” (intransitive) and “to make someone sick of something; to bore” (transitive).

The vehicular sort of “tire” dates back to the 15th century, and at that time meant the curved pieces of iron plate (called “strakes”) fastened around the edges of wooden carriage wheels to minimize wear (essentially horseshoes for wagon wheels). “Tires” eventually became continuous strips of metal, then inflated rubber tubes, and the modern tire shop was born.

The noun “tire,” however, had actually appeared in English more than 200 years earlier than its first “wheel” use, initially meaning simply “dress, apparel, covering,” which makes perfect sense because “tire” is simply an aphetic, or clipped form, of the familiar noun “attire,” meaning “clothing, costume, equipment or ornamentation.” The noun “attire” comes from the verb, meaning originally “to put in order, prepare” (from the Old French “atirier,” put in order).

Today we use “attire” to mean “clothing” or “personal outfit,” and the shortened form “tire” is used almost exclusively to mean those air-filled rubber things on your wheels, so there’s very little overlap. I do worry a bit, however, about those students who may, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, come across a line using “tire” in the old “clothing” sense, e.g., “You in Grecian tires are painted new.” Today that probably sounds like someone is restoring a classic car.