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I’ll “reason why” if I feel like it, buckaroo.

Dear Word Detective: So is “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” related to the The League of Redheaded Gentlemen, The League of Nations, or Major League Baseball? If so, how and when did the word diverge to mean a unit of distance (about 3 miles as I understand it) and a collection of people or groups with a common purpose? — Barney Johnson.

Ah yes, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I first heard that read aloud by my fourth grade teacher during our annual Festival of Depressing Poems. I actually preferred “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, the moon bein’ a ghostly galleon above the purple moor and all. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is, of course, about the disastrous 1854 charge of British cavalry against Russian guns in “the Valley of Death” during the Crimean War.

The “league” in the poem is a unit of distance roughly equivalent to three miles, said to be based on the distance a person could walk in an hour. “League” was commonly used as a measure around the world at various points, but its definition was variable and “leagues” have long been of use only to poets. Wikipedia helpfully notes that the title of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” the 1870 Jules Verne science fiction novel about Captain Nemo and his Nautilus submarine, refers to “the distance traveled while under the sea and not to a depth, as 20,000 leagues is over six times the diameter, and nearly three times the circumference of the Earth.” I wish someone had told me that when I was twelve. I think I thought a league was, maybe, six feet. Of course, that would have meant the Light Brigade charged three feet, not 1-1/2 miles.

“League” first appeared in Late Middle English as “leuge,” and was based on the Late Latin “leuga.” The Latin word was apparently adopted by the Romans from Gaulish, a Celtic language spoken in what we now know as France. (Good first-year Latin students will have Caesar’s “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” — all Gaul is divided into three parts — knocking about their noggins at this point.) Sadly, the trail ends there, and the deeper roots of “league” in this “three miles” sense are obscure.

Unfortunately, none of this has anything to do with “league” in the “Major League Baseball” sense of an association, professional society or group, which is a completely separate word. On the bright side, we do know where this one came from. This “league” entered English in the 15th century (via both French and Italian) from the Latin “ligare,” meaning “to bind.” The first uses of this “league” were to mean an agreement or compact made among and “binding” nations or military or commercial parties for mutual protection of their joint interests (e.g., the League of Nations established in 1919). The use of “league” to mean “association, club, society, etc. with a common purpose or goal” dates to the mid-19th century (“The League was formed chiefly for the purpose of insuring a series of first-class games [etc.].” 1899).

This “league” is also commonly used today in a figurative sense to mean “a certain level in a hierarchy; class” (“She’s out of your league, me lad, and you’ll take a most almighty toss.” 1966). The older sense of “parties bound together by a common interest” is also alive and well in the phrase “in league with,” which usually implies covert and nefarious intent (“For anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.” Dickens, 1859).


Ask Chuck Norris! He was there.

Dear Word Detective: A few years ago, I began hearing a “new” word, new to me, anyway. It was everywhere! That word is “conflate.” Am I wrong in thinking it was made up to fill a need? Seems like a mash-up of “confuse” and “inflate,” although I don’t know how “inflate” could apply. “Confuse” I get, as I interpret “conflate” to mean to mistakenly compare one item with another. Has this younger generation made up another word? Or has “conflate” merely gained popularity, especially in discussions of a scientific nature? — Bunny Reynolds.

Dagnabbit, are those whippersnappers fiddling with our language again? I swan, I can’t abide any more foolishness from those hooligans. Twerking and tweeting and selfing all day. Take away their electronic telephones, I say.

Onward. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, I too have noticed an increased use of “conflate” recently, at least in mass media. I don’t remember hearing it at all when I was growing up, and, according to the Google Ngram viewer (which tracks occurrences of words in books that happen to be in the Google Books database) from 1800 to the present, usage of “conflate” in printed books piddled along at nearly zero until it started to rise in the 1960s and then shot up between 1980 and 2000. So you’re correct that the relative popularity of “conflate” is recent.

But, as the preceding paragraph implies, the word itself is not new. In fact, “conflate” first appeared in English way back in the mid-16th century. “Conflate” comes from the Latin “conflare” (“con,” together, plus “flare,” to blow), and originally meant “to fuse or blow together, to combine, to put together from several sources.” By the late 19th century, “conflate” had narrowed a bit and was primarily used to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “To combine or fuse two variant readings of a text into a composite reading; to form a composite reading or text by such fusion.” Today “conflate” is commonly used more broadly to mean “to confuse two things by combining them or equating them” (e.g., “Buzzfeed has been criticized for conflating real news and the antics of the Kardashians.”). “Conflation” is the particular kind of “confusion” that comes when disparate items or events are combined into one, resulting in “confusing” what actually happened or was said, which brings us, of course, to Brian Williams, aka The Great Conflator.

In early 2015, NBC News anchor Williams was embroiled in a media fracas when he recounted his story of being in a helicopter that was struck by a rocket propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003, a misfortune that had actually befallen a chopper flying an hour ahead of his. Long story short (and it is a complex situation), Williams eventually said that he had “conflated” two separate incidents and apparently “misremembered” what had happened. Given that most people believed he had simply lied, that excuse didn’t fly (he was suspended for six months and then banished to MSNBC). More importantly for this discussion, his high-profile use of “conflate” sent the word rocketing to the top of the list of words being looked up in the online dictionary. So the good news is that more people now know what “conflate” means. The bad news may be that they’re going to use it to explain their fibs.

Amok, Amuck.

Land of the Free, Home of the Murderous Frenzy.

Dear Word Detective: This morning, I told my wife that the maneuvers of several of my fellow drivers was a case of stupidity run amok. Then I thought to myself, “What in the world is ‘amok’ and why can you only ‘run amok’?” Can you shed any light on this odd word? — Fernando.

I know what you mean about driving these days. I remember reading, more than 20 years ago, a complaint by a German visiting the US about American drivers’ “poor lane discipline,” apparently referring to our collective inability to distinguish between driving to Grandma’s house and a car chase in one of the “Bourne” movies. And that was before car dashboards turned into entertainment appliances. I drive as safely as I can, but that seems to inspire fits of road rage among other drivers, so now I mostly stay home.

“Amok,” which today is often spelled “amuck,” comes from the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” In English, the word “amok” dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between Europeans and the Malay inhabitants. One 1773 account explains the word: “To run a muck in the original sense of the word, is to get intoxicated with opium, and then rush into the street with a drawn weapon, and kill whoever comes in the way, till the party is himself either killed or taken prisoner.” (The “drawn weapon” was usually a nasty big knife called a “kris.”) One might well suspect that such accounts of the phenomenon by Europeans might have been somewhat exaggerated and culturally biased; in any case, the word entered English with the same general meaning of “murderous frenzy.” The forms “amok” and “amuck” are considered equally correct in English today, though “a muck” was apparently preferred by the poets Dryden and Byron. Go figure.

Probably because incidents of doped-up loonies waving whatever the plural of “kris” is were rare in England, a figurative sense of “amok” meaning “heedlessly, headlong, recklessly” appeared in the late 17th century, almost always in the construction “running amuck” (“I … might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me.” Thoreau, Walden, 1854). For whatever reason, “amok” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Very rarely [used] with any other verb than run.”

Although the idiom “run amok” has its roots in a violent rampage, in today’s usage it usually means little more than “breaking rules” or “wildly exceeding one’s authority” (“Forbes has its own tales of interns run amuck. There was the Forbes 400 intern who took it upon herself to arrange a meeting with the then-fugitive financier Marc Rich … in Geneva, Switzerland.” Forbes 6/30/15). Disgruntled airline passengers seem to “run amuck” fairly frequently in the news, presumably waving sharpened air-sickness bags, but the taming of of “run amuck” into a tepid metaphor is best illustrated by one newsletter I found complaining that apathy among voters has “run amuck.”

By the way, I highly recommend a fascinating article written by etymologist Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words website ( on the surprising range of words English has borrowed from the Malay language, including “compound,” “bamboo” and “gingham.”