Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks. (note: JavaScript must be turned on in your browser to view results.)


Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!




Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.


Archives 2007 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.


If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds


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.


This just in.

Dear Word Detective: If it’s possible to “pre-empt” something, is it possible to just “empt” it? — Jo.

Yeah, sure, there’s an app for that. There must be, right? I discovered the other day that a disturbing number of you people out there read this column on your telephones, which strikes me as fairly weird, and makes me wonder if I should be writing shorter sentences with shorter words. Like this one. In case your bus comes. Or something. I actually did set up a “mobile” version of my website a few months back, but it made my deathless prose look like a ransom note, so I pulled the plug.

“Pre-empt” is one of a class of strange little words (“co-opt” is another) that make many people uncomfortable and drive spell-checkers nuts. It’s the hyphen that does it, but there’s really no way around it unless both words become as commonly used as “cooperate,” which you still frequently see spelled as “co-operate” outside the US. “Pre-empt” is increasingly spelled “preempt” here in the US, but that form still makes me look twice, which is not what you want in a word.

“Empt” actually is a verb in English, but (Star Wars reference ahead) it’s not the verb you’re looking for; it’s related to “empty,” it means “to be or make empty,” and it’s considered obsolete to boot. To “pre-empt,” on the other hand, means “to preclude, to forestall, to prevent an anticipated occurrence or to take action before another person is able to.” We usually hear “pre-empt” in the TV sense of “replacing a scheduled program or event with another deemed more important,” but it’s also commonly used in the “act before someone else has a chance” sense (“It is hoped the move could pre-empt an announcement by the Government that it has found a way to alter planning laws,” 2005).

“Pre-empt” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century, and the verb was actually a “back-formation” from the noun “pre-emption,” which dates back to about 1600. (“Back-formation” occurs when a simpler word, often a verb, is created from an older, more complex form. The verb “to sculpt,” for instance, was formed long after “sculptor” appeared.)

Pre-emption,” of course, is also commonly used today meaning simply “the act of pre-empting” in all its various senses.

But the original meaning of “pre-emption” gives a hint as to its source. When “pre-emption” first appeared, it was in the specific sense of “The purchase by one person or party before an opportunity is offered to others; the right of making such a purchase in certain circumstances” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word was formed from the prefix “pre” (before) plus “emption,” a legal term meaning “to buy.” The root of “emption” was the Latin verb “emere,” to buy; the agent-noun of that verb is “emptor,” famous from the Latin phrase “Caveat emptor,” or “Let the buyer beware.”

There have been several legal doctrines based on various “rights of pre-emption,” usually entitling either the state to seize property or a private party to purchase public property with a promise to improve it. When a new law overrides an existing one, that process is also called “pre-emption.” There’s also the military tactic of “pre-emption,” making a surprise “pre-emptive” attack on a putative enemy deemed sufficiently threatening. And, if the conflict is sufficiently momentous, such a “pre-emptive” attack will probably result, at least on the “pre-empting” end, in “pre-emption” of America’s Top Model by men in ornate uniforms standing in front of maps, at which point it might be a good idea to meditate a bit on “caveat emptor.”

Out for a duck

No runs, no hits, big trauma.

Dear Word Detective: I’m searching for the meaning of the expression “out for a duck,” as used in “The first time Milne went to see his son play in a school cricket match, he was out for a duck, not scoring a single run.” — Ehrenberg H. Peter.

Ah yes, as the great existential philosopher Chico Marx once put it, “Why a duck? Why not a chicken?” Of course, in the film (Cocoanuts, 1929), Chico has misunderstood Groucho saying “viaduct,” and the dialogue then descends into Chico wondering why Groucho needs a Ford to cross the river when he has a horse, but “Why a duck?” is about all we have time for at the moment. The relevant clip, like every other worthy bit of human history, can be found on YouTube. While you’re there, check out some clips from the Marx Brothers’ subsequent film “Duck Soup.” The boys seem to have had a thing for ducks.

But who among us, as John Kerry so famously is said to have said, does not enjoy ducks? The English language certainly does. The humble but endearing waterfowl we know as the “duck” has contributed dozens of colorful phrases to our speech. When we put our affairs in order, we say we have “all our ducks in a row” (as a mother duck leads her brood of ducklings), we shed adversity “like water off a duck’s back,” we learn a new job (we hope) “like a duck takes to water” (easily), we greet a gloomy sky as “a good day for a duck” but regard sunshine as “ducky” (from the use of “little duck” and similar terms as endearments), and if something is very easy, we declare it “duck soup” (the origin of which is, sadly, a complete mystery).

Our modern English word “duck” comes from the Old English “ducan,” which did not, interestingly, mean any sort of bird. “Ducan” was a verb meaning “to plunge underwater suddenly, to dive or dip.” The name “duck” for the fowl came from its habit of feeding by “ducking,” plunging its head into the water. So when you have to “duck” your head when climbing into a compact car, don’t blame the ducks for bad design.

The phrase you cite as an example of “out for a duck” actually comes from an account of the strained relationship between A.A. Milne, author of “Winnie the Pooh” and other works, and his son Christopher Robin Milne, who starred in many of his father’s stories. The fact that the younger Milne failed to score in that cricket match was evidently a source of great disappointment to both him and his father.

“Duck” as slang for scoring no hits (or meaning a player who scores no hits) originated in cricket in the mid-19th century, but is now used in other sports as well. “Duck” in this sense is short for “duck’s egg,” meaning the zero placed beside the player’s name in scoring sheets. It first appeared in schoolboy slang in Britain, where it is also used to mean “nothing” in a general sense. To finally score after a time at “duck” in cricket is to “break one’s duck,” but if that doesn’t happen and the game concludes with a player not having scored even once, that hapless soul is said to be “out for a duck.” In the US, we more simply refer to zero as a “goose egg.”