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 I guess “above the fold” isn’t likely to catch on at this point.

Dear Word Detective: As part of my cancer treatment, my doctors are monitoring several blood levels for evidence that the chemotherapy is working. Recently, I experienced a significant drop in two of them — a very good sign. One of my doctors, in fact, referred to the results as “outstanding,” which led me to wonder: has the word “outstanding” always had positive connotations? It seems, based on the construction of the word itself, that you could interpret “outstanding” as “a significant outlier when compared to normal.” This suggests that something could also be outstandingly bad. Was it ever used this way? I wonder similar things about other words we use to connote “particularly good,” such as “exceptional.” — Fernando.

That’s a interesting question (and congratulations, of course, on your good news). As for “outstanding,” I’m starting to think that at some point I left my mental attic door open, because when I read your question I immediately flashed on a coffee mug someone in my family gave me back in the 1980s. It bore a cartoon (by Sandra Boynton, I believe) of a puzzled-looking cow surrounded by daisies, beneath which the caption read “To someone outstanding in their field.” So here’s a word, “outstanding,” that I probably read fifty times a day in various contexts, and have used in various senses myself zillions of times in the past thirty years, but when I start to consider the word I come up with a mental image of a perplexed cow. I’m not sure this is helpful.

“Outstanding” is a fairly old word, first found in print (so far) in 1611, and it has developed, as old words are wont to do, several meanings over the years. Speaking of which, isn’t it interesting that words never retire, or rust, or fall apart into a heap of useless letters at some point? We might call certain words “antiquated,” but they’re still usable, unlike a certain Ford I bought back in the late 90s.

When “outstanding” first appeared it was a simple combination of “out” and “standing,” drawn from the phrasal verb “to stand out,” which had appeared around 1540 in the sense “to jut out, protrude.” The initial meaning of “outstanding” was “jutting out, projecting or prominent” in a literal, physical sense (“Those who prefer supple and clinging fabrics to those which are stiff and outstanding,” 1896). But within about 20 years it had also come into use in a figurative sense meaning “continuing to exist or remaining to be dealt with,” especially describing a debt still owed or a legal matter yet unsettled, a sense still widely used today (“Cossiga asked De Mita to stay on to handle outstanding business,” 1989).

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that “outstanding” came to be used in its current general sense of “noteworthy,” “conspicuous” or “prominent” (“There are many interesting articles .. but there is hardly one of outstanding importance,” 1889). This was a largely value-free use of the word; a politician could be noted for his “outstanding” acts of corruption as well as his “outstanding” service to the public. To be “outstanding,” all a person or thing had to do was to draw special attention by “standing out” from the crowd. In this sense, Al Capone was an “outstanding” resident of Chicago. But that example is only (somewhat) funny because we now usually use “outstanding” to mean “outstandingly good.”

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when this neutral “standing out” connotation of “outstanding” gave way to the meaning “exceptionally good,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the sense. The earliest citation the current edition of the OED provides that clearly invokes this positive sense is from 1936 (“Your lawn tennis was outstanding; you were a magnificent boxer”), but the previous edition (1989) of the OED doesn’t list this positive sense at all. If I had to guess (and I guess I do) when the transition took place, I’d venture that it was a gradual process that really got going in the mid-20th century and spread through the mass media, particularly television advertising. The same shift of meaning, as you note, has affected “exceptional” as well as “remarkable,” both of which originally meant simply “not in the normal run of things” but now connote something more than likely to also warrant the adjectives “new,” “improved,” and “must-have.”

Please stand by

UPDATE. August 19: We are up and running again, if you don’t count that humongous dead tree lying across the front yard (deposited by a subsequent storm) and various other problems. The August Issue will be posted within the next few days.


Due to the 80 mph wind that blew down one of the power poles on our land, thereby pulling down several trees and ripping the power feeder cable from the side of the house, there will be a slight delay in our July Issue. At the moment, it’s 100+ degrees F in the house, we have no electricity, no water (well pump doesn’t run on wishes), no a/c, no tv and no computers. They say it may be another 4-5 days until it’s fixed, but with more storms coming, that may be optimistic.

Everyone else on our road now has power. Life not fair. We have lost all the food in our freezer and fridge (~$400), so donations to our storm fund (aka subscriptions) are much appreciated.

(posted from Panera Bread, where I bought a consolation bear claw.)


June 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


And you may ask yourself What happened to the month of May?

And you may say, This is not my beautiful May Issue of The Word Detective!

And you may say, No, seriously, this is supposed to be a monthly deal! I’m paying to read this on my Kindle!

And I say, Mea culpa. You really wanna know what happened? OK, but after the jump.

Meanwhile, I did finally finish reading the 10,000-page opus 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (on my little Nook, with the font jacked up to 72 points). My one-word review: incompetent. Boy howdy, what a waste. A real shame. And I’m still annoyed at this dead goat of a book. Then again, I’m not alone. I just really wish I’d read this (major spoilers) before I wasted my time and retinas. Ho, ho, ho.

What else? Well, Google+ is pretty definitively kaput as far as I can tell. Frankly, they made it so difficult for non-heavy-hitters to play that I’m not gonna miss ‘em. Keep your dumb old API read-only, see if I care.

On the bright side, I’m here to say that I was wrong about Twitter. Someone recently tweeted (still hate that verb) that signing up for the service was like seeing “mastheads come to life,” which is a good way of putting it. I follow mostly writers, editors and  journalists, and often see pointers to great stuff to read online that I otherwise would have missed. I’m also a fan of accounts like @pourmecoffee, @kenjennings and the late, all too  brief @NotTildaSwinton. I know it was actually just two guys without jobs, but … maybe it really was Tilda. Come back, Tilda. Your Tildren miss you, and we miss your wisdom:

A mission for you. Go outside, hold an animal to your breast. That is real warmth, not the glow of your screen. I typed this on a rabbit.

Or maybe not. I guess wherever you are they don’t have biting flies.

Speaking of biting flies, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recent brouhaha occasioned by the decision by The New Yorker to commission a review of Henry Hitchings’ new book “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by their, um, dance critic, Joan Acocella (who may be a fine dance critic but, in this case, has literally no grasp whatsoever of the subject she’s writing about). What, as they say on the internet, could possibly go wrong? A lot, in fact, and Steven Pinker summed it up nicely thus:

Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings.

Language Log was, of course, there for the ensuing dustup, and a good place to start, for those with lots of spare time and a desire to understand the ruckus, would be here. By the way, my father, William Morris, is mentioned early on in Ms. Aocella’s jeremiad. I’m fairly certain that he would not have been amused by her hallucinations.

So here’s the June Issue, which contains 18 columns (rather than the usual 12 or so) to make up for my tardiness. And thanks to all the folks who have contributed by subscribing lately. It would be awesome if more of you folks did. But it would also be great if you’d just send in some questions, since they are, after all, the raw material I need to run this circus, and the more I have the easier it is.

And now a depressing explanation of where the May Issue went:

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