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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.

Continue reading this post » » »


None for me, thanks.

Dear Word Detective: In DAR records from the 19th century, it was stated that a relative of mine “suffered depredation.” Was the usage of this word different in the 19th century than we would expect today? What would it have meant then? — Karl Gabosh.

Whoa. Blast from the past. By “DAR,” I’m assuming you mean the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization founded in 1896 and open to any woman able to prove that an ancestor had some connection to the American Revolution. My maternal grandmother was active in the DAR, and I vaguely remember being enrolled in the CAR (Children of the American Revolution) myself, though I seem to have forgotten the secret handshake. I believe a tenuous genetic connection to Button Gwinnett was my personal ticket to ride, but I’m probably wrong and expect to be corrected by my more attentive relatives shortly.

It’s hard to say exactly what the DAR records mean by “depredation” without knowing more of the context in which the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “depredation” as meaning “A predatory attack; a raid,” as well as “Damage or loss; ravage,” giving the example “[Carnegie Hall has] withstood the wear and tear of enthusiastic music lovers and the normal depredations of time” (Mechanical Engineering). So I guess the word today can mean anything from a vicious physical attack to some minor wear and tear on your awnings.

To get a better sense of what the DAR might have meant by “depredation,” we’ll hop in the Wayback Machine and take a gander at the roots of the word. “Depredation” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, modeled on the French “depredation” or “depredacion,” which was in turn derived from the Latin “depraedation,” a noun derived from the verb “depraedare,” which means “to plunder.”

The early literal sense of “depredation” in English was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the action of making a prey of; plundering, pillaging, ravaging.” That’s not surprising, because that Latin “depraedare” was formed from the prefix “de” (in this case meaning “thoroughly”) plus “praedari,” to make prey of, formed on “praeda,” meaning “prey” (and also the source of our English word “prey”).

While “depredation” has certainly been used to mean the act of physically attacking something or someone as a predator (another related word) would, or various acts of robbery or plunder, “depredation” has also long been used in a more figurative sense of “destructive actions, processes or ravages,” as of disease, hunger, exposure, etc. Even natural processes of consumption or evaporation have been described as “depredations” (“The Speedy Depredation of Air upon Watery Moisture, and Version of the same into Air, appeareth in … the sudden discharge … of a little Cloud of Breath, or Vapour, from Glass,” Francis Bacon, 1626). “Depredation” has even been used to mean “harsh literary criticism” (“Sterne truly resembled Shakespeare’s Biron, in the extent of his depredations from other writers,” 1798), although the literary world is often not as different from the cheetah chasing the antelope across the veldt as one might imagine.

Given the wide range of literal and figurative uses to which “depredation” has been put, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the DAR record means by the word. The 19th century didn’t assign a particular meaning to “depredation,” but considering the historical context it probably was being used to mean something worse than a bad book review. My guess is that it referred to “depredations” at least of poverty or other unfortunate circumstance, but possibly (worst-case scenario) actual physical attack, perhaps during the US Civil War or in its aftermath.