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Third degree

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Dear Word Detective:  I am reading an interesting book about a murder in New York City in 1897. The book is called “The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.” I’m only just beginning, and I don’t know whodunnit yet, so don’t tell me! My question is about this: One of the policemen involved is a Captain Stephen O’Brien. There is some discussion about his effectiveness at interrogating and the interrogation rooms, which are appropriately sound-proofed so that the Captain can give suspects the “third degree.” According to the author, this is a phrase that Captain O’Brien’s predecessor, Inspector Thomas Barnes, coined. Any way to verify that? — Jenny Nunemacher.

Ah yes, the Gilded Age, that late 19th century era of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, Mellons, Astors and their rarefied ilk, their opulent mansions, yachts, sweatshops, tenements, corrupt politicians and lurid scandals. How exotic I wish that all sounded today. Incidentally, the term “Gilded Age” was actually coined by Mark Twain and C.D. Warner as the title of their novel, published in 1873.

I can’t tell you whodunnit, and wouldn’t if I did, but apparently Paul Collins, the author of that book, is far from the first to write about that singularly grisly murder (A.J. Liebling titled his 1955 New Yorker piece about the crime “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman”). It was also the occasion of an important early battle in the war between the Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper empires.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the sense of “third degree” in your question as “An interrogation of a prisoner by the police involving the infliction of mental or physical suffering in order to bring about a confession or to secure information.” The phrase is often used in an extended sense to mean a less intense but still thorough sort of questioning, such as by a parent of a tardy child or an irate boss of a feckless underling. In the “police interrogation” sense, the first printed use of “third degree” found so far is from 1895 (“From time to time a prisoner … claims to have had the Third Degree administered to him,” 1900). But an 1880 Harvard Lampoon story refers to “a personal chastisement in the third degree,” apparently meaning a severe scolding, so the phrase may be a good deal older.

Use of “third degree” to mean a third step in severity of something dates back to the 16th century, and a “third degree burn” has been the most serious sort since the mid-19th century. Oddly enough, given that “third degree” in the police sense is definitely a US coinage, in US criminal law a crime “in the third degree” is the least serious grade of that crime.

The exact origin of “third degree” in the “brutal interrogation” sense is, predictably, unknown. I’m not sure on what evidence Paul Collins bases his statement that Inspector Thomas Barnes coined it, but I strongly suspect that he’s wrong. It’s not uncommon for people to claim to have invented words and phrases (or to know who did) and for writers decades or centuries later to take those claims as being true simply because they were made at about the same time that the phrase first appeared. But it’s also not absolutely impossible that Inspector Barnes either invented or popularized the term in that sense. It does seem to have originated in New York City.

More likely, however, is that “the third degree” in the “beat with a rubber hose” sense was adopted by analogy to another use, perhaps the burn classification, which certainly would have been familiar to police officers.

A more intriguing (and I think likely) possibility is that “third degree” was originally a reference to the Third Degree in Freemasonry, the level of Master Mason, which is only reached after undergoing a rigorous examination and questioning by elder Masons. Freemasonry was more popular in the 19th century US than it is today, and the “Third Degree” of Masonry, which was established around 1725, would have been familiar to many police officers in the 1890s. Since the Masonic interrogation ceremony was undoubtedly intellectually difficult but far from the “third degree” administered by the police, the first use of the term by police may well have been, in fact, as a jocular euphemism.


I’ll stick with the leeches, thanks.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a novel the other day that referred to one of the characters as having been “trepanned.” I was confused, because my understanding was that the word referred to drilling holes in something, often a skull, and I seemed to have missed the scene where the guy got his skull perforated. An obligatory search of revealed that there is a secondary meaning of “trepan” as a verb — to trick or swindle — and, as a noun, — one who does the tricking or swindling — implying that one who is “trepanned” is one who has been tricked or swindled (something that made far more sense in the context of my novel than having holes bored in one’s head). My question, then, is this: are these two terms related? If so, what is the logic there, and if not, what is the origin of the latter definition? — Gwyn.

Well, I hope they’re not the same word, simply because I’ve always had a secret gnawing dread of having holes drilled in my noggin and would prefer not to have to think about it.

As it turns out, the “trepan” that refers to drilling holes in your head and the “trepan” which means “to swindle” (or the person or trick involved in a swindle) are not the same word, and there’s no real connection between the two words. Except maybe a little.

The earlier of the “trepans” to appear in English was the “hole in the head” one, around 1400. The noun “trepan,” from which the verb was formed, is defined as “a surgical saw for cutting out pieces of bone, especially from the skull,” and was derived, via French, from the Greek “trypan,” meaning “to bore.” “Trepan” as a noun has also been used to mean a contraption used to bore holes in the walls of fortresses under siege, as well as a shaft used to drill holes in the ground for a variety of purposes. The associated verb “to trepan,” meaning “to bore through bone, particularly the skull” appeared at about the same time (“Prince Rupert is … so bad, that he doth now yield to be trapan’d,” Diary, Samuel Pepys, 1667). “Trepan” has also been used since the early 20th century to mean “to bore a hole through something (wood, metal, etc.) so as to remove a core in one piece” (“The smaller holes are best bored, but large holes can be trepanned in order to save a useful piece of material,” 1970).

“Trepan” in the “hoodwink” sense first appeared as criminal underworld slang in the mid-17th century both as a noun (meaning both “someone who tricks or traps victims” and the trick or trap itself) and as a verb meaning “to ensnare, beguile, cheat” (“Ten of those Rogues had trapann’d him out of 500 Crowns,” 1662). As you can see from that 1662 quotation, the original spelling of this “trepan” was “trapan,” and the most likely explanation of the word is that “trapan” was simply derived from the verb “to trap.” So, in origin, the two “trepans” are completely separate words.

Now things get a little weird. The later change in the spelling of “trapan” to “trepan” may have arisen at least in part because “trepan” in the “bore a hole in your head” sense was a far more well-known word than “trapan,” which was fairly obscure thieves’ slang. (It also probably didn’t help that “trepan” in the “bore” meaning was, at that time, occasionally spelled “trapan.”) The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests that the switch from the spelling “trapan” to “trepan” occurred because people thought “trapan” must be a figurative use of “trepan,” i.e., that people who were beguiled or cheated were metaphorically being “bored into” by the con artist. That apparently made so much sense to so many people that both words are now spelled “trepan.”

Plastic & elastic

 Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Word Detective:  I was reading a book originally published in the late 1800s when I came across a reference to a character with a “plastic personality.” I was somewhat taken aback, thinking that plastic was a fairly new word (think “The Graduate”). However, upon searching your archives, I found this bit of light: “Prior to the invention of the ‘stuff’ sort of plastic, however, the term ‘plastic’ was used primarily as an adjective meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘moldable,’ having been quite logically drawn from the Greek ‘plastikos,’ or ‘fit for molding.’ Appearing in English first in the 16th century, this sense of ‘plastic’ was applied to everything from modeling clay to the ‘plastic,’ or highly impressionable, nature of political opinions among voters.” Well, first question answered. Because I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between “plastic” and “elastic,” I conducted a second search of your archives but failed to turn up the latter. Are they related? — John Pearson.

Hmm. I really need to pay closer attention. It wasn’t until I read through your question a second time that I realized you were quoting something I wrote ten years ago. Speaking of “plastic” in the “Graduate” sense (a 1967 film, in the course of which a friend of Dustin Hoffman’s father gives him “one word [of career advice]: plastics”), I have a question. Elsewhere in the 1960s, “plastic” became a popular slang epithet for something, or someone, considered inauthentic and phony. The Monkees, for instance, were considered a “plastic” pop group because they were invented by a TV network. Whatever happened to “plastic” in this “phony junk” sense? It came in handy.

As I noted in that column from 2002, what we think of as “plastic” today (“polymers of high molecular weight based on synthetic resins or modified natural polymers,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it) was developed in the early 20th century but didn’t come into widespread use until the 1950s.

While the signature quality of “plastic,” both as a noun and an adjective, is the ability to be molded into nearly any shape, and to permanently retain that shape, the point of “elastic” is just the opposite. Something that is “elastic” can be stretched, compressed, or twisted in several directions at once, but when the force is removed it will return to its original shape. “Elastic” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, derived, via Latin, from the Greek “elastos,” meaning “flexible.” The initial use of “elastic” in English was as an adjective applied to gases capable of spontaneous expansion; solid materials were first described as “elastic” later in that century. But “elastic” as a noun, usually meaning a cord or string suffused or interwoven with rubber, didn’t appear until the mid-19th century.

Just as “plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “pliable, moldable,” came to be applied to the mental states and emotions of people who were easily convinced of things, “elastic” began in the late 18th century to be applied to the sort of personality that “bounces back” from adversity or depression (“This elastic little urchin,” T. Carlyle, 1822). Apart from that sort of extended, psychological use, and having to do with the change of shape of substances, and having Greek roots, there’s no real connection between the two words.