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Dear Word Detective: What happened to the relationship between “appoint” and “disappoint”? They seem to have become estranged. — Doris Render.

Sad, isn’t it? I remember when you’d see them strolling hand-in-hand through the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, texting each other. At least I assume they were texting each other. I wouldn’t know because, brace yourself, I’ve never texted anyone in my life. No, I’m not a neo-luddite. I’ve just developed the knack of becoming bored with things before I’ve done them. Saves pots of time.

So, anyway, my understanding is that “appoint,” a basically positive word, just couldn’t take the negativity of “disappoint” any longer. “Appoint” is actually the older of the pair, first appearing in English in the late 14th century. We adopted “appoint” from the Old French word “apointer,” which in turn was formed on the phrase “a point,” meaning literally “to the point.” “Appoint” also inherited its main senses from the French “apointer.” The first was “to bring matters to a point; to agree,” Most of the uses associated with this sense are now obsolete, but we continue to use the sense of “agree on a time and place for a meeting, etc.” when we speak of a “doctor’s appointment” or an “appointed time and place.”

The second sense was a bit more forceful and less mutual, wherein “appoint” meant “to fix, declare or decree authoritatively.” This sense is used today mostly to mean “to ordain, nominate or establish” a person in a certain office or position, etc. (“The father was empowered to appoint persons of his own choice to be his children’s guardians,” 1883). The third major sense of “appoint” is “to put in suitable and orderly condition; to prepare,” now almost only encountered in the past participle form “appointed” (“Their several Lodgings, which were as well appointed as such a season would permit,” 1664).

“Disappoint” finally showed up in the early 16th century. Although the prefix “dis” in “disappoint,” as usual in English, means “not,” the story of “disappoint” is more than just a simple negation of “appoint” in its various senses. The source of “disappoint” was the French “desappointer,” which meant specifically “to undo an appointment; to deprive of an appointment, office or position; to remove from an office” that had been previously granted by official power (“A Monarch … hath power … to appoint or to disappoint the greatest officers,” 1586).

That specific “clear out your desk” sense of “disappoint” is now obsolete, but it had been quickly generalized and gave us our most common modern sense of the word, “to frustrate the desire or expectations of a person; to defeat a person in the fulfillment of their desire.” Today nearly anything that fails to live up to our hopes and expectations can be said to “disappoint” us (“Ormandy’s CBS album of the Berlioz Requiem.., of which I had high hopes, disappoints,” 1966).

The one other original sense of “appoint” which produced a parallel sense of “disappoint” is that of “agree on a time and place.” Although it often overlaps with the “let down” sense of “disappoint” outlined above, “disappoint” is also used to mean specifically “to break or fail to keep an appointment” or, more broadly, “to undo or frustrate anything previously agreed upon.” This sense does not necessarily imply the “frustrated desire” and emotional letdown of the other sense, only a rupture in an appointment which had been arranged and expected. So if you develop a cold and thereby “disappoint” our plan to go to a dinner theater presentation of “Cats” together, I may very well not feel personally “disappointed” at all.

November 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


OK, it’s not November. November was not a good month. October wasn’t so hot, either. There will be a December issue as soon as I can muster one.

We went to a doctor’s appt. in Columbus, 40 miles away, in late October and somebody kicked in our back door and robbed us. We don’t have much of anything anyone would want, but these creeps went straight upstairs to the bedroom and took some heirloom jewelry (grandparents’ rings, etc.) that they found in a drawer. Unfortunately, what they took was not only emotionally important to Kathy, the only direct, physical mementos of her parents and grandparents, but also our last-resort, end-of-the-world nest egg. Now we’ve really got nuttin’.

It was a weirdly fastidious robbery; they closed the drawers and some boxes on the dresser, and closed the back door on their way out. If they hadn’t cracked the door frame and part of the wall next to it, we might not have noticed the robbery for days. The Sheriff’s Deputy who came to investigate suggested that, based on the method, it might be the work of either a family member or a neighbor, but we lack an eligible relative and it has since become apparent that our robbery was just one of about a dozen identical crimes that have swept our general are in recent weeks. What we need now is an alarm system that plays the sound of somebody racking a 12-gauge pump shotgun.

Brownie & Fifi the Cat

What happened next is hard to write about, so I’m going to keep this short. Our beloved dog Brownie died the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, apparently of a seizure of some kind as she slept on the living room floor. Brownie was 14-1/2 years old. She was our best friend, the most wonderful, loving, smart, sweet dog I have ever known. We got her as a foundling puppy soon after we moved to Ohio from NYC, and we were lucky to have spent all day every day with her ever since. Apart from some arthritis, she had no known health problems; I had taken her for a walk earlier in the day around the yard, and she seemed fine. I’m glad she wasn’t sick, I’m glad she could still play ball with me in the living room the night before she died, I’m glad she knew how much we loved her, but we miss her terribly. She was the third person in the house, and it seems impossible that she isn’t sleeping downstairs right now.

Onward. Because this seems to be how the universe works, I greeted Thanksgiving Day by coming down with either the worst case of food poisoning possible or, more likely, a killer case of some Norovirus. Whatever it was meant a solid week of Exorcist-level projectile vomiting and inability to eat that left me too weak to walk and severely dehydrated. Multiple Sclerosis acts as a force multiplier in such things, so everything hurt like hell and my eyes went completely blurry, making it impossible to read. I seem to be on the mend now, but I lost about ten pounds and I still feel yucky and my eyes are still iffy. Thanksgiving, of course, simply did not happen.

Have I mentioned that today is my birthday? Oh, yay.

But the Holidays are here, and Subscriptions make lovely holiday gifts! So please consider giving a few. And random acts of contribution are, of course, always appreciated.

And now, on with the show….



Cheerfully rotten.

Dear Word Detective:  An acquaintance of mine related that he had provided “moral support” to a friend in need. I like to think I am a person of sound morals, but it seems to me that “morale support” would be a more accurate description of the act. So how about it? Are “moral” and “morale” related?  And if not, how in the world did the phrase “moral support” come about? — Steve Ford.

I can has world domination?

Morals? How quaint, Mister Bond. Here I sit behind my vast desk, petting my peerless and remarkably obese white cat, and you speak as if these “morals” of yours will stop me in my ruthless march to control the world’s supply of adjectives.

Speaking of obese white cats, I read an article the other day about the tiny camera-equipped drones, controlled with an iPhone app, that are now available for a few hundred bucks to regular (if somewhat pallid and weedy) buyers. A perceptive commenter pointed out that in recent years, thanks to such technology, the cost of being a super-villain has fallen dramatically, meaning that we should expect a bumper crop of suburban Ernst Blofelds vamping on their neighbors. I guess I’d better hurry up and finish my death ray.

“Moral” and “morale” are not only related in origin and usage, but so intertwined that they come very close to being the same word. Apart from that silent “e” at the end of “morale,” the most noticeable difference between the two words is that the stress is on the first syllable in “moral” and on the second in “morale.”

It all began with the Latin word “mor” or “mos,” which meant “custom or habit.” The plural of “mor” was “mores” (pronounced “more-ays,” like multiple nasty eels), which was adopted into English in the late 19th century to mean “the shared customs, attitudes and manners of a community.” The use of “mores” seems to have dropped off in recent years, but back in the 1960s, when half the US was foaming at the mouth over the “immorality” of hippies, you could always turn on PBS and find a serious pseudo-sociological discussion about the “change in American social mores” that all those libidinous potheads represented.

But by the time “mores” came into vogue in the 1890s, the adjective “moral” had already been in common use in English for more than 400 years. “Moral” as an adjective ultimately came from that same Latin “mor,” but English adopted it from the French “moral,” meaning “concerned with questions of right, wrong and ethics” or, of a person, “able to act in a right or wrong way.”

Although in its basic sense the adjective “moral” merely posed the question of a thing or action being right or wrong, in practice the assumption soon became that a “moral” person, book, act, etc., reflected the “good side” of human nature and, optimally, inculcated those values in people, such as children, prone to wander off the path of righteousness if not watched closely. There are some modern vestiges of the original “value-free” use of moral; “moral support” (1852) means support of the mental and emotional kind, rather than actually jumping into the fray, and a “moral victory” (1896) is a defeat in which the loser can be proud of sticking to a moral principle (which may not necessarily be one perceived by others as “morally good”).

“Moral” as a noun appeared in English in the 14th century meaning “a moral principle,” but today it’s almost always used in the plural “morals” to mean a person’s moral beliefs or behavior. Another sense still in use today is that of “a moral lesson or teaching,” the “moral of the story” in many old children’s tales.

The noun “morale” appeared in English in the late 18th century, also drawn from French, where “morale” is the feminine form of the adjective “moral.” It was initially used as a synonym of “moral” in English, but this seems to have been the result of some confusion about the finer shadings of meaning in French, where “morale” has more to do with a person’s emotional state than moral rectitude. Eventually “morale” in English came to mean almost exclusively the state of confidence, optimism, hope or simply contentment in a person or group (“To improve the morale of the entire mercantile community,” 1866). So now we have “morale boosting” (1960), “morale building” (1943) and “morale raising” (1946) to make us feel better about whatever pickle we find ourselves in at the moment.

You could make a case that “moral support” should actually be “morale support,” but I see two problems. One is that “moral support” involves matters of principle, not just the subjective confidence or contentment of the person you’re supporting. I’ve known some utterly unprincipled jerks who seemed to have excellent morale. The real problem, however, is that it’s just too late to change it.