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None dare call it “moist,” because “moist” is a creepy word.

Dear Word Detective: Now that heating season is here, at least in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, my husband and I were talking about that little device in the wood-stove called a “damper,” the one that throttles back the air supply to the fire to keep it going slower and longer so it lasts all night. It sounds like, but surely cannot be related to, the word “damp” which refers to a slight sogginess. I don’t think that the two words can be related, but I have been wrong before; after all, I am on my second marriage. Can you enlighten us? — Grandma Roses.

I wish we had a wood stove. Personally, I started worrying about the Polar Vortex back in August.

That’s a good question, and your skepticism concerning a possible connection between “damper” and the “soggy” sort of “damp” is entirely justified. But, in this case, wrong. Not only are “damper” and “damp” related, but the “damp” in “damper” is exactly the same word as “damp” meaning “moist.” What we have in “damp” is a word which has radically changed its meaning several times since it first appeared in English in the 14th century, so radically that “damp” today bears little apparent connection to its roots.

The root of “damp” was the Middle Low German word “damp,” based in turn on Germanic roots meaning “vapor,” which was, in fact, the initial meaning of “damp” as an English noun. A “damp” was specifically a noxious vapor, gas or smoke, whether smoke from a open fire, fumes from a cooking stove, or the dangerous gases found in coal mines (known as “black damp” or “choke damp” in the 17th century). It was in the 17th century that “damp” came to also mean fog or vapor of any kind (“I have lost all my bad Symptoms, and am ready to think I could even bear the damps of London.” 1739). But it wasn’t until the 18th century that “damp” was widely used in its modern general sense of “moisture” (initially referring to the wetness of fog or vapor condensed upon an object). Today, of course, this “slightly soggy” sense of “damp” is the only one most people use.

But meanwhile, back in the 16th century, a verb form of “damp” had appeared, derived from the noun. This “to damp” did not, however, mean “to moisten” as we might expect. It meant “to suffocate or choke,” as “damp” in the “smoke” sense would make breathing difficult. That “suffocate” sense quickly led to “damp” meaning “to deaden or dull” a sound or “to extinguish a fire,” and by the 19th century “to damp down” was being used to mean to reduce the intensity of a fire to a low level (without extinguishing it) when it wasn’t needed. “Damp” and “damp down” were also used to mean to mechanically quiet the strings of a piano and, figuratively, to reduce the energy or enthusiasm of a person (“Our hopes of a speedy departure were even now somewhat damped.” 1748).

“Damper” also appeared in the mid-18th century, meaning something that “damps” the spirits (e.g., bad news), takes the edge off one’s appetite, the mechanism that “damps” a piano, and that movable plate or mechanism in a chimney that “damps” a fire by restricting the flow of air (“The heat of the furnace under the boiler was rudely regulated in both machines by a damper.” 1829).


It’s what’s for dinner.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband is retired military and he was talking earlier this evening about his early years in the service (I do mean early — he enlisted in 1954). He has often wondered how the expression “chow” came to be used for meals in the service, and although he has asked many people, no one seems to know. Can you help? — C.S.

Wow. 1954? That’s before Elvis was in the Army, back when it was possible to be insanely rich and still get drafted. Back when, if you stayed home from school, the only thing on TV was “December Bride.” Back when “Mad Men” meant loons like George Metesky (the New York City “Mad Bomber” with a grudge against Con Ed) and America looked to Joe Friday (or Hopalong Cassidy) for safety.  Or so I hear, since I’m only 39.

“Chow” meaning “food” in a general sense first appeared in the mid-19th century in the US. Its source seems to have been the English-Chinese pidgin term “chow chow,” also meaning “food.” A “pidgin” (pronounced “pid-jin”) language is a simplified version of a language developed to allow communication between two groups that do not share a common language; “chow chow” was listed in a pidgin glossary that was in use by British embassy personnel in China in the late 19th century. The connection of “chow chow” to any known Chinese word is shaky, but “ch’ao” or “ch’au” (both “to fry”) is a possibility. Bad jokes aside, there is no demonstrable connection between “chow chow” and the “Chow” dog breed, originally from China.

While the origin of “chow chow” may be murky, there’s no mystery about how the term  came to the US. The railroad system in this country, especially in the western states, was built in large part by many thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers. “Chow chow” and the simplified form “chow” were part of the Chinese-English pidgin that gradually percolated into American slang, especially in those two grand repositories of slang in any society, prisons and the armed forces. Today in the US we “chow down” on pizza with our “chow hound” friends, and though the word remains slightly informal, most folks haven’t a clue it came from China.

Speaking of military food, the term “mess” for a meal or place of eating (in that case, short for “mess hall”) seems weirdly, if mysteriously, derogatory to many people, probably because it implies an untidy or unsanitary scene. But the original meaning of “mess” in English was, in fact, “a serving of food; a meal,” from the Latin “missus” (“a placing”), the past participle of “mittere” (to put, place, send; the same verb gave us “mission”). First appearing in English in the 14th century, “mess” was also used to mean “great quantity” (“mess of fish”) as well as “several kinds of food mixed together” and “mixed food fed to animals,” which led to it meaning “confused situation” and “untidy or chaotic arrangement” (as in “My apartment’s a mess right now”). But the military use of “mess” is the original “meal” sense of the term, no matter what lame jokes are heard in the chow line.

Grocery / Gross

Move your … bananas … to the bagging area.

Dear Word Detective:  I have a college senior trying to tell me that the word “grocery” was derived from the policies of old store selling goods by the “gross” (144 of each). I am skeptical of this description. Can you help? — M. Campbell.

Hmm. Brace yourself. Your college senior is about to step out into the real world, the world of jobs and responsibility where the knowledge gained in those four years will be tested in the crucible of experience. And the probability that the first crucible testing your graduate will be a cashier’s post in the local Food Barn grocery store won’t diminish the value (or, sadly, the cost) of that education one whit.

Ordinarily, I would second your skepticism about that suggested origin of “grocery.” It seems far too simple. But it is, in fact, right on the money.

To begin at the beginning, we have “gross,” which appeared in English in the 14th century as an adjective meaning “thick, bulky, large.” The root of “gross” is the late Latin “grossus” (also meaning “thick or bulky”), but further back than that the trail goes cold. Etymological dictionaries insist that “grossus” is not related to either of two logical suspects: the Latin “crassus” (“bulky”) or the German “gross” (“large”). Since English has many words meaning “huge,” use of “gross” in terms of physical size eventually faded away and “gross” was used to mean either “flagrant, excessive, offensive” (“gross incompetence”) or “complete, total” (“gross income,” “gross national product”). The use of “gross” as a noun to mean “twelve dozen” (144) of something  arose in English in the 15th century, drawn from the French “grosse douzaine” meaning “large dozen.” Interestingly, “gross” in this sense is always singular; we speak of “sixteen gross of ostrich eggs,” not “grosses.”

More than a few of the senses “gross” acquired over the years were unpleasant or uncomplimentary. “Gross” food was coarse, common, not refined, and a “gross” person was one considered dull, tasteless and stupid. “Gross” speech was similarly crude and unrefined (“The vulgar dialect of the city was gross and barbarous.” 1781). But the standalone adjective “gross” meaning “disgusting,” now a perennial item of teen slang, didn’t appear until the late 1950s.

In the 14th century, English adopted the Old French term “grossier” (from the Latin “grossarius,” wholesaler) as “grocer,” meaning a merchant who buys and sells “by the gross,” i.e., in large quantities. The term was first used only for wholesalers, merchants who dealt in literal  tons of spices, fabric, etc. But “grocer” was soon expanded to include retailers who sold any kind of goods that would not be sold in specialty outlets. “Grocery” meant the sort of things sold by a grocer; our modern use of the term “grocery” to mean “grocer’s shop” is a US invention.