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I can’t believe we used to picnic at Bear Mountain. Sounds like the setup for a bad horror movie.

Dear Word Detective:  You were kind enough to answer a previous question of mine regarding “to the manner born” (love Shakespeare!), so here I am again. I have noticed that lately the words “grizzly” (as in bear) and “grisly” (as in gruesome, bloody) seem to have  merged and are being used interchangeably. Can you explain the difference between the two words, and how we seem to have become confused about them? — Mary Funke.

Really? Dat’s distoibing. I actually thought, back in the 1990s, that the increasing popularity of the internet would be a boon for reading and language skills because, back then, reading was the only thing you could do online. Practice makes perfect, yadda yadda. Text is still the bulk of content online, but the catch is that much of it appears to have been written by drunken chipmunks, or perhaps just by people with a very shaky grasp of standard spelling. Oh well, things do fall apart. I used to joke about the inevitable arrival of a “point and grunt” interface for computers, but then the iPhone and iPad arrived, proving that true genius often consists of patenting the stupidest thing you can possibly imagine.

One problem with distinguishing “grizzly” from “grisly” is that the two are homophones, words that sound the same even though their spellings differ. Another problem is that, while the two words are far from being synonyms, they both denote sources of fear and anxiety for most normal people and are thus far more similar in connotation than many other pairs of homophones (pail/pale, tail/tale, plane/plain, days/daze, etc.). Both “grizzly” and “grisly” play in the same mental ballpark. It’s a similar case when so many people type “free reign” rather than “free rein.” Both “rein” and “reign” connote forms of control.

While grizzly bears make lousy pets, their name does not refer to their marked propensity for mayhem (which did, however, earn them the Latin name “Ursus arctos horribilus”). But don’t take my word for the bear’s personality defects. Look up “grizzly bear” in Wikipedia at the moment, and you’ll find Stephen Colbert quoted to the effect that bears (apparently all bears) are “… godless killing machines … The insatiable blood lust of Bears can never be quenched and therefore all must be destroyed in order to save the human race. Recent scientific studies have shown that all Bears are possessed at the moment of birth by demons from Hell, which explains their Satanic behavior. …” That paragraph has, no doubt, already been pasted into dozens of term papers.

The “grizzly” in the bear’s name, however, is the common English adjective “grizzly” meaning “gray, grayish” or “grizzled,” from the Old French “grisel,” meaning “gray.” Grizzly bears are also known as “silver-tip bears” from the silvery-gray tips of their otherwise brownish fur.

Interestingly, the name of the grizzly bear may reflect an early instance of the “grizzly/grisly” confusion. When naturalist George Ord gave the bear a scientific name in 1815, based on the observations of Lewis and Clark (who had returned from their explorations with a dead grizzly), he called it “Ursus horribilus ord,” meaning “Ord’s horrible bear.” Some sources suggest that Ord misunderstood the “grizzly” in the bear’s popular name as “grisly,” meaning “horrible; causing horror, terror and extreme fear.” Ord’s use of the Latin word “horribilus”  (also meaning “causing horror or great fear”) would tend to indicate that he believed the bear got its popular name by being extremely scary, rather than from having silvery fur. In any case, the grizzly is now known as “Ursus arctos horribilis,” meaning “horrible northern bear,” to differentiate it from the closely-related brown bear.

The word “grisly” (from the Old English “grisan,” to shudder) first appeared in English in the 12th century meaning “causing great fear or terror or dread, as of death,” but in modern use “grisly” has been diluted a bit, and generally means simply “scary” or, most often, “grim, frightening and shocking.” In journalism, “grisly” has become a euphemism for “brutal” or “bloody” (“Investigation continues into grisly elevator death,” ABC News headline, 12/11). In our house, at least, “grisly” is a code word for “change the channel.”

August 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was un-fun. So, when we left our intrepid heroes last time out, they were just about to experience a weather phenomenon known as a derecho, which is apparently Spanish for Didn’t there use to be a big tree over there? and involves 80 mph straight-line winds arriving with very little warning. Unlike tornadoes, which usually can be seen gathering on the horizon out here and generally move a bit slower (allowing time for NWS tornado alerts, getting Dorothy down in the root cellar, etc.), these derecho things are more like a shotgun blast or some awful cosmic chainsaw ripping through the landscape. The entire storm at our house (which involved no — zero, nada —  actual rain) lasted 90 seconds, tops. But the blast of the wind bent major trees almost to the ground and filled the air with a mixture of dirt and vegetation that made it look like we were underwater. Very impressive.

Our appreciation of this stirring demonstration of  the Majesty of Nature was interrupted early on in that 90 seconds, however, by an explosion on the north side of the house accompanied by a very dramatic shower of sparks coming from up near the roof. A power pole on our property (we have four carrying the line back to the house) had snapped in two, breaking another pole up the line and slicing a 30 ft. pine tree (a former live xmas tree, in fact) in half vertically. More importantly, the force of the pole falling had ripped the power feeder cable out of the side of our house (thus the sparks) and draped it across our yard and driveway, and, in what I think was a particularly nice touch, suspended it a few inches above our ancient (and only) car. Power to our house was broken about nine different ways. No power out here means no water, by the way, since we depend on an electric well pump.

Long story short, everyone else on our road had power again within 24 hours. Because of the damage to the poles and lines on our land, we got our power back eight days later, during which time daytime temps were over 100 F. What made this more than extremely uncomfortable in my case is that people with ms can get hyperthermia — heat stroke — at fairly low temps, so we spent as much time as possible in supermarkets and coffee shops with a/c, all of which involved a 35-mile round trip from what was left of home. Giant Eagle, we discovered, has a “cafe” that closes at 7 pm, but they leave the wi-fi on 24/7 and don’t care if you sit there in the dark all night. (Not that we had the money for a week in a motel, but the few near us were booked solid the whole time, and were charging extortionate “emergency prices” to boot.) Driving down our road at night for a week and seeing every other house lit up with the a/c running and the Blue Glow of Happy Potatohood flickering in the windows was, I must say, a bit disheartening.

Eventually the power came back on and we began the grim task of cleaning up. My favorite part was emptying the freezer full of food out in the garage. The power line had fallen in such a way that it blocked access to the garage door, and the result, after a week in high heat, was the stuff of nightmares.

But within a few days it was mostly a bad memory. And then it happened again. Seriously. About a week after the power came back, another derecho with 80 mph winds hit us. Miraculously, it didn’t take out the power, but it did knock down a huge old tree which is still lying across our front yard.

While we’re on the subject of help, thanks to all the folks who have contributed to our continuing existence by subscribing to TWD-by-Email, and special thanks to those two wonderful people (you know who you are) who have sent us Holy-Cow-Level contributions in the past month or so. It’s no fun having electric power if you can’t afford to turn on the lights, and we really appreciate your generosity.

Continue reading this post » » »

Behalf / Behalves

Thanks for your help. Now go stand over there.

Dear Word Detective:  I just got an email where someone referred to “on our behalves.” Is this correct? I’d always thought it would be “on our behalf,” even if it’s on behalf of multiple people. — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Oh boy. What you’ve asked seems like a simple yes-or-no sort of question, but it isn’t. The story of “behalf” begins with our common English word “half,” which first appeared in Old English, from common Germanic roots, as “half” or “healf.” Today we often use “half” to mean “one of two equal parts of something,” but the oldest meaning of the word in English is “side,” as in the right or left side of a person. In the ninth century this sense of “half” was expanded to mean “one of the two opposing parties to a conflict,” much as we use “side” today. Thus to say that you were “on the half of” someone meant that you were on their side and supported their cause, and phrases such as “on the half of,” “in the half of,” etc., became common English idioms in this figurative sense. “On (or in) the half of” could also mean “acting in place of or as agent or representative of” another person.

This use of “half” to mean “side” eventually died out, but not before the rise of “behalf” in the 14th century. “Behalf” (which had first appeared as “behealfe” in Old English) was simply a combination of “half” in the “side” sense with the prefix “be” meaning “by,” giving us the meaning of “by one’s side, for one’s benefit.” Although the Old English “behealfe” acted as an adverb and a preposition, our modern “behalf” is purely and simply a noun, a thing. And there’s the rub.

As a noun, “behalf” needs a preposition (“on,” “for” or “in one’s behalf”) in order to make sense. There is a school of thought that regards “on behalf of” as meaning “for the benefit of,” and “in behalf of” as connoting representation of another person (“Bob negotiated in behalf of Sam, who was in the hospital.”), but this distinction is not commonly observed. “On behalf of” is the standard form for all uses in Britain, but “on” and “in” are used interchangeably in the US.

Historically, “behalf” has also had a plural form, either “behalves” (modeled on the plural of “half”) or, more commonly, “behalfs.” When multiple parties are involved, I think the question is whether their interests (i.e., “behalfs”) are the same or separate. Ordinarily, you’d say “The attorney appealed to the bank on behalf of Tom and Mary, the homeowners.” But if Tom and Mary were divorcing and had separate lawyers, their lawyers might appeal to the bank “on their clients’ behalfs,” because their interests would be separate. Personally, I’d draw the line at “behalves,” simply because “on one’s behalf” is such a fixed phrase in English that “behalves” looks weird. And obviously, if you have a single entity, such as an athletic team, that is composed of multiple individuals, there’s no need to say “on the team’s behalfs” (or even “on the players’ behalfs,” unless they’re suing each other).