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.


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 2006 – 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 © 1995-2011 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.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds

Stand down

And quit scowling at the drones, Citizen.

Dear Word Detective:  I am curious to learn the origin of the phrase “stand down.” I think that everyone is familiar with its meaning, but this is a curious combination of words and I would be interested to learn its original (literal) usage. The Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful, so I am turning to you in the hope that you could enlighten me, a humble member of the unwashed masses. — Dave Johannsen.

All right, now here’s a man who’s gotten with the program. Honestly, the hardest part of getting used to Neo-Feudalism is gonna be overcoming what we at the Bureau of Get Back to Work like to call Demon Self-Esteem. I know the 80s were the “Me Decade,” but the New Future is all about doffing your cap when the Kardashians come to inspect the furrow you’re hoeing. Nuff said.

By the way, I happen to have copyrighted the phrase “Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful,” so you owe me a buck fifty. Keep in mind that Larry Page and Sergey Brin originally wanted to call it “Googol,” a term dreamed up by mathematician Edward Kasner’s nephew Milton back in the 1930s for a very large number, specifically ten raised to the hundredth power. That’s a one followed by one hundred zeros, or roughly the number of spurious answers Google now provides to the average question. But the “” domain name was already taken, so the lads called their invention “Google,” which, appropriately, doesn’t actually mean anything.

“Stand down” is a specialized use of the verb “to stand,” which, as you might imagine, is quite old and has developed dozens of senses. “Stand” first appeared in Old English (as “standan”) from Germanic roots, and means in its most basic sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it regarding people or animals, “to assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.)” or, of things, “to be in an upright position with the lower part resting on or fixed in the ground or other support; opposed to lie.” In addition to various literal uses, “stand” has acquired a wide range of figurative senses, from “to stand by” someone (be faithful and supportive) to “stand” in the sense of “bear, tolerate” (“I could not stand the music in the elevator, so I took the stairs”).

“Stand down” is one of several specifically military uses of “stand” that include “to stand to one’s arms,” meaning “to maintain one’s position in the face of an attack” (the source of the idiom “to stick to your guns,” meaning “to not give in” in an argument, etc.), as well as “to stand to arms,” meaning to assume combat readiness and prepare for action. “To stand down” is the opposite of “to stand to arms,” and means to go off duty or relax from a state of readiness (“‘Stand-down’ was the corresponding order at the end of the Danger Period, used in like manner as an expression for a definite point of time,” 1925). The “down” in “stand down” doesn’t mean literally taking a seat, any more than the command “at ease” means to lounge on the nearest couch, but the contrast is to “on duty” status and alert readiness. “Stand down” first appeared in print in 1919, just after World War I, so we can assume that the term originated in that conflict.

Most uses of “stand down” I’ve found in print are in the military sense, but it is used occasionally in the sense of “to back off” or “to stop an aggressive action” (“Medical marijuana protesters urge feds to stand down,” 10/11). Here in the US, “stand down” seems to be commonly used as a name of community programs and public-awareness campaigns designed to help military veterans facing endemic unemployment and homelessness (“Stand Down gives veterans chance to get help, give back,” 10/13/11).


Old-school spooky.

[Note: This column was distributed to subscribers last October.]

Dear Word Detective: O Grand and Mighty Word Detective, Master of Arcane Linguistic Knowledge! Hear me! …Ahem, sorry. I seem to have been taken over by a touch of the over-dramatic, but then again, it is somewhat related to my question. Perhaps it is because of the Halloween atmosphere right now, but I have suddenly been reminded of being told by one of my Arabic literature professors, some years ago, that the word “macabre” is in fact derived from Arabic, from the word “maqabir,” which is the plural form of “maqbara,” meaning “graveyard.” Now, while I’m generally suspicious of such claims, it does seem pretty enticing: the phonetic and semantic similarity is quite striking, and the explanation offered in my Oxford Concise (“from Danse Macabre ‘dance of death’, from Old French, perhaps from Macabe, ‘a Maccabee’, with reference to a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabees”) actually feels weaker. So, what do you say? Is the Arabic source actually plausible, or is “macabre” more Hanukkah than Halloween? Or is it something else entirely? — Yael.

Halloween already? I guess so. Speaking of which, today we passed some poor schmuck standing on the curb, trying to drum up business for one of those “Halloween Megastores” that pop up in strip malls at this time of the year. He was, of course, in costume, dressed as … wait for it … Gumby! Uh, Gumby? Was there some late-period Gumby movie, maybe “Gumby and the Vampire Chainsaw of Horror,” that I missed? Because otherwise that’s just depressing.

It’s definitely the time of year for all things “macabre,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome; tending to produce horror in a beholder.” The adjective “macabre” has been used in this sense since the late 19th century (“It was the material representation … of the ghastly, the grim, and the macabre which Webster intended,” 1892). “Macabre” can also be a noun, meaning either something macabre or the quality of being macabre (“The macabre of … Baudelaire, gave the impression of decadence,” 1958).

The theory you encountered tying “macabre” to the Arabic “maqabir,” meaning “graveyard” is indeed enticing, and it seems to have been enticing scholars for many years. There was a discussion of just this question on an Arabic linguistic mailing list about ten years ago, in fact. But apparently there are historical problems connecting the two words (the Oxford English Dictionary states bluntly that “there is no evidence” to support that theory), and so most etymologists accept the “Danse Macabre/Maccabees” theory.

The “Maccabees” were a Jewish rebel army who freed Judea from the Greek-Macedonian Seleucid Empire around 164 B.C. and have been celebrated ever since as heroes and martyrs. The deaths of the Maccabees were vividly and gorily described in early religious texts, and eventually reverence for the Maccabees was associated with respect for death in general as well as for Death personified. This was most vividly illustrated in the Middle Ages in Europe by the “Danse Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” a theme in art and literature featuring the classic figure of Death, a skeleton bearing a scythe, leading the living in their dance toward inevitable death. The final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” famously depicts just such a “danse macabre,” and if you’re insufficiently gloomy after seeing that film, you can always check out Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 16th century painting “The Triumph of Death,” in which Death rides a horse and just about everything has gone horribly wrong. It makes great desktop wallpaper, by the way. People who see that on your laptop will not interrupt your work.

The “macabre” of “Danse Macabre” is actually Old French and is thought to have been derived from the Latin “Maccabaeus” (Maccabees) or the Greek form, “Makkabios.” But by the Middle Ages, “macabre” had largely lost its connection to the Maccabees, and few people today even associate the word with the “Dance of Death,” which strikes me as a shame. Halloween ought to be about more than cookie-cutter serial killers and lame pop-cult costumes (Gumby?). The truly “macabre” is the dimension of the deeply creepy and awesomely strange. It’s not just another mechanical “Boo!”

Beyond one’s ken

It’s the unknown unknowns that bite.

Dear Word Detective: “Beyond my ken,” a phrase that shows up from time to time in your columns, seems too-little used these days. The financial crisis alone, with its collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages, should have triggered an avalanche of its use. Assuming it has nothing to do with Barbie’s soul mate, what insight can you provide? Are things ever spoken of as being “within one’s ken”? — Steve Ford.

Hey, lookie there. My spell-checker doesn’t recognize “collateralized.” It’s not often that I envy my computer its innocence. You make a good point about the reluctance of many people to admit that the financial blowup-meltdown-whatsis was, and remains, “beyond their ken.” I was actually surprised back in 2008 at how much I understood about what was going on, but I guess I picked up a lot through osmosis while working at a Wall Street law firm many years ago. Back then they were trying to market derivatives based on credit card receivables, an idea which struck even me, a humble scrivener, as nuts. But that was before they invented credit default swaps, whereby you could win by losing billions. Someone needs to point out that all this chicanery is not, strictly speaking, capitalism.

“Ken” is an interesting little word. It first appeared in Old English as the verb “cennan,” meaning “to make known” or “to cause to know.” “Cennan” was the causative form of the verb “cunnan,” which meant “to know.” That “cunnan” also produced our modern English verb “can” (meaning “to be able to”) and is related to our modern verb “to know.” Incidentally, “can” originally meant simply “to know,” but over time took on the meaning of “to know how to do something,” and eventually acquired the modern sense of “to be able to do something” (“Becky can dance but Bob is hopeless”). The old sense of “can” meaning “to know” can still be found in the adjective “canny” meaning “sharp, wise” (and “cunnan” lives on in our modern “cunning”).

Meanwhile, back at “ken,” the verb “to ken” in modern English originally meant “to make known” or “to teach,” but by the 13th century “to ken” had also come to mean “to recognize or catch sight of” (“And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn, And villager abroad at early toil,” 1771). This sense progressed to include recognizing a particular person and then to be acquainted with someone or something, and so forth, until “to ken” came to mean “to comprehend or understand, to be aware of” just about anything. By this point you’ve probably noticed that “to ken” is now essentially synonymous with “to know,” and are wondering why you’ve never seen it used in any of these senses. That’s because “to ken,” once a mainstay of speech all over Britain, is now used almost exclusively in Scotland.

“Ken” the noun followed an evolution parallel to that of the verb “to ken,” with an interesting detour. The earliest use of “ken” in modern English, in the 16th century, was as a shortening of the Scots word “kenning,” which was a nautical term meaning “the range of ordinary vision at sea,” normally reckoned to be about 20 nautical miles. In later usage, “ken” evolved a broader sense of “range of vision” or “[in] sight or view of a place or thing” (“Tis double death to drowne in ken of shore,” Shakespeare, 1594). Eventually the figurative sense of “view” and “sight” gave “ken” the meaning of “perception or understanding; field of knowledge,” most often encountered today in the phrase “beyond one’s ken,” meaning “outside one’s field of knowledge” or “beyond one’s understanding.”

I’ve been poking around a bit, but so far I’ve been unable to find any published affirmative use of “ken,” as in “Yes, that’s well within my ken; let me explain it to you in short words, with pictures.” I’m sure someone, somewhere has said or written it, but for the most part a “ken” seems to be that area of personal knowledge that never contains answers to the really thorny questions, such as where all the world’s money suddenly went. Perhaps we should worry less about “too big to fail” and more about “too big to ken.”