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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Mmm, citrusy good. But I think I just broke a tooth.

Dear Word Detective: I read the ingredients printed on a package of taco shells (ground corn, lime, vegetable shortening). I’ve heard (well, read) different views on what form of “lime” is meant in tortilla recipes, but I got to wondering: Is the “lime” in limestone (dull, grey, sedimentary rock) in any way related to the “lime” that is a bright, green, citrusy addition to a good gin and  tonic? And for that matter, how do “limey” and “blimey” work into the mix? — Danny.

Gin and tonic, eh? I’ve always said that if I were to take up drinking, it’d be gin and tonics, the only mixed drink that ever tasted good to me. There’s also the odd fact that when I was very small, there was someone on our road who drank a lot of Gilbey’s gin and always threw the frosted glass bottles on our lawn. I thought those bottles were incredibly cool, but my parents wouldn’t let me collect them. Probably afraid I’d take a few dozen to “Show and Tell” day at my school.

I must admit that your first two sentences, about taco shells containing lime, intrigued me, and I subsequently spent a good hour or so researching the question of what sort of “lime” is being dished up by Taco Bell. It turns out that some tortilla recipes do call for the juice of the “lime” fruit, but that’s not the main sort of “lime” in taco-land.

It all begins with the mineral limestone, a hard, plentiful form of calcium carbonate often used to build large buildings and similar durable structures. (Fun fact: The crystalline form of limestone is marble.) Limestone is also used to make calcium oxide, also known as “quicklime,” “burnt lime,” or simply “lime.”  This “lime” is made by subjecting limestone to very high heat in a kiln; the result, quicklime, is an extremely caustic substance widely used in industry (and in old murder mysteries to dispose of the body). Incidentally, back in the 19th century, before the widespread introduction of electric lighting, theaters used “limelight,” a brilliant white light produced by heating quicklime, as stage lighting. The term “limelight” is still used as a metaphor for “public attention,” usually positive (“The beauty of his person … helped to throw the limelight upon him,” 1908).

Interestingly, the English word “lime” behind all this comes from Germanic roots meaning “to smear,” which makes more sense when you find that “lime” was originally used to mean a sticky substance made from holly bark and used to trap birds. The change in meaning came about because “quicklime” was often a component of mortar, which makes bricks stick together.

So “quicklime” is pretty nasty stuff and would be a bad choice as a food ingredient, but if you mix it the right way with water, you get calcium hydroxide, also known as “slaked lime,” which is much less scary and plays all sorts of useful roles in industry (it’s used in depilatories, for instance). In food preparation, slaked lime is used as a calcium supplement, in pickling, and, here ya go, to make the corn meal flour in tortillas stick together better. So that’s the lime on the taco shell package (which, as I said, may also mention lime fruit juice).

Meanwhile, back at your gin and tonic, the name of the citrus fruit resembling a green lemon called a “lime” is from a completely unrelated source. “Lime” came from the Old French “limon,” which at that time meant citrus fruit in general, including both lemons and limes. Portuguese, French and Spanish have similar words, and all are probably of Middle Eastern origin (Persian “limun,” Arabic “lima,” etc.).

“Limey” (originally “lime-juicer”) as a colloquial and mildly derogatory term for a British person goes back to the 19th century Royal Navy, when sailors were required to drink lime juice at sea to ward off scurvy (caused by a lack of vitamin C). “Blimey” and “gorblimey,”  stereotypical lower-class British expressions of distress or astonishment, are corruptions of, respectively, “Blind me!” and “God blind me!” Both date to the 19th century, are now usually heard only in films, and have nothing to do with limes.

Worth a lick

 Not nothing, but barely.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, a foreign forum user asked what “lick” is supposed to mean. The phrase he was referring to was “Worth a lick.” I was a bit perplexed that your cats hadn’t asked. — Richard Clow.

Well, perhaps they have. I stopped listening to them after they suggested I buy stock in Facebook. It was one of those rare times I’m glad I don’t have any money, because if I had had any money and had spent it on that, I wouldn’t have any money anymore. People say that Facebook can’t possibly collapse because they have, like, six billion users or something, but those people need to (a) Google “tulipomania,” (b) read Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” a few times, and (c) check out the recent business history of Myspace. Sometime soon the only people left on Facebook will be (a) parents spying on their own kids, and (b) those sad little strip-mall mattress stores that have “Like Us on Facebook!” signs flashing all night long in darkened and silent small towns in Ohio.

“Lick” as a noun first appeared around 1600, drawn directly from the verb “to lick,” which came from the Old English “liccian,” based on Germanic roots that were probably imitative, i.e., the word imitated the action or sound of licking. As a verb, “lick” means “to pass the tongue over something; to lap at” to taste the thing, moisten it, etc. “To lick” in the sense of “to defeat” (“OSU licked Michigan again in the dreams of many fans”) was originally “lick up,” to vanquish, probably from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, which used the image of an ox “licking up” (eating) all the grass in a field.

In its most basic sense, “lick” as a noun means “an act of licking,” but from early on it was also used to mean “a small amount,” such as the amount of food as could be had in a single lick. Thus “a lick” could simply mean “a small amount of food” (“Everybody brought ‘sunthin’—some a lick of meal, some a punkin’ [etc.],” 1853). But a “lick” of something could be a small amount of anything, even such intangibles as “work” (“But all day yesterday an’ to-day he hain’t worked a lick,” 1902), intelligence (“I was fool enough to argue with him a bit, trying to see if he didn’t have a lick of sense,” 1919), or simply aptitude or ability in anything (“His grandfather was a preacher and he couldn’t read a lick,” 1971). It’s this “small amount” sense of “lick” found in the phrase “worth a lick” in your question.

“Lick” can also be used to mean “a brief or superficial effort,” as in the phrase “a lick and a promise” meaning “a quick washing or cleaning,” the “promise” being an implicit one to do a more thorough job at some later time (“The room, instead of its usual vigorous cleaning, got what Nelly would have called a lick and a promise,” 1934).

The “small” and “brief” connotations of “lick” are are also found in the less cheerful use of “lick” to mean “a quick, smart blow,” especially from a cane, whip or stick, which dates back to the 17th century (“[He] gave the Fellow half a dozen good Licks with his Cane,” 1680). We still use this sense in phrases such as “to take one’s licks,” meaning to accept one’s expected punishment or criticism (“He and his … Socialist Movement have been taking their licks,” 1987).

On the positive side, however, since the 1930s “lick” has been musicians’ slang for a short, dynamic musical phrase or catchy solo inserted into a musical performance (“The blues riff is even better, full of Charlie Parker-like bebop licks,” 1970).

January 2013 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


What about December? You mean December of last year? Sheesh. I think it’s best if we all just look forward, y’know? There’s nothing to be gained by pointing fingers and dwelling on the missteps of the past. Things happened, mistakes were made, water under the bridge, ship sailed, case closed. Besides, what we have here in our shiny new January is one of those increasingly special times when I post an issue of this little circus in the same month as it says at the top of the page.

Anyway, ave atque vale, annus terribilis 2012. Meanwhile, thanks to all our friends who have subscribed and otherwise contributed to our well-being over the past few months. Quite apart from the fact that your support literally makes this site possible, the morale boost it furnishes is the reason I don’t spend my days watching Family Feud reruns.

As for the Great Thanksgiving Norovirus Adventure, I am better now, but not entirely up to snuff yet. Having missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years entirely, I hope to be completely well soon, because I have a lot riding on Arbor Day. Anyway, I have all sorts of fun medical appointments scheduled (I seem to be anemic, among other things). I also have an ophthalmic exam coming up, which I hope will fix my inability to read anything. Seriously. I’ve spent the past two months with vision so blurred that I’m almost completely unable to make out lines of type on a computer screen. I am really hoping that the problem can be resolved by new glasses and isn’t a sudden increase in the irreversible loss of vision associated with multiple sclerosis.

Speaking of computer screens, my big LCD monitor gave up the ghost last year, and after spending a week or so struggling to use an old, dim and yellow 17-inch Dell LCD monitor I had left over from about 2001, I went online at (the totally awesome opposite of larcenous dumps like Best Buy) to see what I could reasonably afford. I discovered that while I was sleeping, the world had dumped the old LCD technology, CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent lamp) backlighting, and taken up with the cheaper, “greener” LED backlighting. OK. Whatever. So I hunted around a bit and found a suspiciously cheap (~$125) 24-inch Dell LED LCD monitor. (I think the deal must have been a drastic sale, actually, because the same monitor is now almost $200). So it comes, I plug it in, and boy howdy, that thing would have been visible from space. I’m now running it at 40% brightness. It looks like it might be sharper than my old LCD, but it’s hard to say because, as I said, I can’t actually read anything on the screen. Grrr.

So at the moment I’m relying on my aging but trusty T60 ThinkPad laptop, which has a slightly dim screen (which is OK because everything around me seems way too bright), but also sports 1024 x 768 resolution (a la 2004) and thus is much easier to read. I love my T60.

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