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Dear Word Detective: Watching Donald Trump dip his toe into the waters of politics has started me thinking about the various words that describe him. Can you tell me the origin of the word “buffoon”? — John Clogg.

Yeah, sure, no problemo. But I have to note at the outset that I neither endorse nor refudiate use of that term in regard to Mr. Trump. Speaking as a former long-time resident of the Big Apple, however, I must say that I find the national prominence that The Donald has attained a bit surprising. For most of the time I lived in New York City, he was regarded as just a local curiosity on a par with Al Sharpton, Curtis Sliwa or John Gotti. Gotti’s dead now, of course, and Sliwa rates a big “Who?” on most people’s fame-o-meters. (Guardian Angels patrols on the subways, remember?) But somehow Trump parlayed multiple bankruptcies, scary orange hair and a total absence of taste into a national TV career. Things like this make me start to believe all that stuff about 2012.

“Buffoon” is not, of course, a term you would apply to someone you admire. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “buffoon” as “A clown; a jester,” “A person given to clowning and joking,” and “A ludicrous or bumbling person; a fool.” In common usage today, the synonyms that “buffoon” calls to mind are “blowhard,” “pretentious fool” and “loud-mouthed idiot.” The modern connotations of “buffoon” are harshly contemptuous, and it’s very doubtful that even a professional circus clown would feel comfortable being labeled a “buffoon” these days.

But the first “buffoons,” when the term first appeared in the 16th century, were just that — professional comic actors or jesters (Samuel Johnson defined the word as “A man whose profession is to make sport by low jests and antick postures”). English borrowed “buffoon” from the French “buffon,” which came from the Italian “buffone,” which was based on the Italian “buffa,” meaning “a jest.” That “buffa,” in turn, was connected to the verb “buffare,” meaning “to puff,” and here things get interesting. It’s possible that the use of “puffing” to refer to jokes was a reference to the light and gentle nature of the jokes and jests of a “buffoon,” or the “puffing” may refer to the jester actually puffing out his cheeks and making other funny faces.

While a “buffoon” was originally a professional jester, by the early 17th century the term had broadened to include amateur humorists, specifically the sort who consider themselves comic geniuses but strike everyone else as jerks and creeps. It was at this point that “buffoon” acquired its modern highly negative connotations. It was also this period that saw the first appearance of the noun “buffoonery,” meaning “low humor, jesting, farce.”

We still use “buffoon” and “buffoonery” in those senses, but modern usage of both terms has taken an interesting twist. While a “buffoon” was once known for making stupid or tasteless jokes, the modern “buffoon” is often a person whose transparently absurd posturing makes him (or, less frequently, her) the object of public ridicule and derisive jokes. Similarly, “buffoonery,” once a synonym for broad, vulgar humor, has come to mean self-important nonsense spouted, often in front of microphones, by a buffoon. Interestingly, given the roots of “buffoon,” this modern sense of “buffoon” fits quite nicely with the adjective “puffed-up,” meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inflated or swollen with vanity, pride, etc.; having an inflated sense of one’s importance or worth; pompous, overweening.”

Hard tack

Dear Word Detective: It’s the puzzled sailors again. What is the significance of the “tack” in “hard tack” and “soft tack”? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) turned up the hated words “Origin obscure,” but I hold out hope that you might dig something up. — Elizabeth Lightwood.

This is a question guaranteed to make readers grateful for whatever they had for breakfast this morning. “Hard tack” (also found in the forms “hardtack” and “hard-tack”) is a unleavened biscuit or large cracker, usually about three inches square, made from just flour and water, sometimes with a bit of salt thrown in. “Hard tack” is (or has been) also known as “pilot bread” or “pilot biscuits” (referring to the “pilot” of a ship, a specialist who guides ships through congested harbors, etc.), “ship biscuits,” “sea biscuits” and “sea bread,” as well as by many more colorful names invented by the soldiers and sailors who had to face “hard tack” as their daily meal.

“Hard tack” first appeared in print in English in 1836, but similar bread was a staple ration of armies and navies around the world from at least the time of the Roman Empire until canning and other food preservation technologies were developed. The advantage of hard tack is that, if kept dry, it can be stored for literally decades and still be edible (to the extent that it ever was). This made it ideal for long sea voyages and armies in the field, and legend has it that hard tack left over from the US Civil War was re-issued to troops in the Spanish-American War in 1898, more than thirty years after it was baked. To make hard tack more palatable, soldiers and sailors (one is tempted to call them “victims”) often crumbled the biscuits into coffee, water or soup, or, if meat and vegetables were available, used it to make a stew called “lobscouse.” According to Wikipedia, hard tack is still manufactured by several companies, and remarkably popular in Canada, Alaska and Hawaii. Go figure. Maybe it goes well with Spam.

The “hard” in “hard tack” is easy to explain. The biscuits were also known as “tooth breakers” (a softer version called “soft tack” or “Captain’s bread” was reserved for higher-ranking personnel), and in the 19th century British Navy hard tack was also known as “pantile” or “Liverpool pantile,” “pantile” being a ceramic roofing tile.

The “tack” in “hard tack” and “soft tack” is a bit more mysterious, but the explanation probably lies in one of two possibilities. One is that the “tack” in “hard tack” is simply the noun “tack” in a derivative sense of “strength, substance, solidity.” Our English noun “tack” comes from Germanic roots with the general sense of “nail” (thus “tack” in the “carpet tack” sense), and has long been used in various senses to mean “that which holds securely” or, as a quality possessed by a thing or person, “adherence” or “endurance” (“There is no tack in such a one, he is not to be trusted,” 1884). Since expressions such as “to hold tack,” meaning “to be strong,” were common in the 19th century, it seems plausible that the “tack” in “hard tack” is a reference to its prodigious solidity. Hard tack is nothing if not strong.

It’s also been suggested, however, that the “tack” in “hard tack” is a short form of “tackle,” in the sense of “equipment” or “necessary gear” (as in “fishing tackle,” etc.). “Tackle” itself comes from Germanic roots meaning “rigging of a ship” (and may be connected to our friend “tack” in the “fasten” sense), and the theory here is that “hard tack” got its name because it was standard shipboard fare, i.e., a necessary (and inevitable) bit of nautical “equipment.” One argument in favor of this theory is the fact that “tackle” was also used in 19th century slang to mean “food” in general (“Do you think ladies usually eat that stodgy tackle?” 1900), so “hard tack” might have simply been another way to say “hard food.”

October 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


So I turned on the local news the other night to see when it would stop raining. I wasn’t really paying close attention; I actually had my back to the TV and was writing something. After a few minutes, however, it percolated into my frontal cortex that the people on the tee-vee were very excited about something, so I turned around and noticed that emblazoned across the screen in flashing orange was FEROCIOUS WILD ANIMALS ON THE LOOSE — RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! or words to that effect. Turns out that some … jerk, to put it mildly … had been keeping fifty or so lions, tigers, mountain lions, cheetahs, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and monkeys, plus a giraffe, in tiny cages on his “wildlife preserve” west of Zanesville. And now, for whatever reason, he had chosen a dark, rainy evening to turn them all loose and then shoot himself. You saw all this as the top story on CNN, the BBC, et al., I’m sure.

The particular problem for us at that moment was that the “preserve” was just about 25 miles due east of us. That sounds like a long way away, but it’s all open, mostly flat country around here, and the authorities seemed a bit unclear as to exactly how long these animals had been loose — at least five or six hours at that point. Still, it seemed unlikely that they would make it this far, or it did until the news helpfully reported that there had been credible sightings in southern Licking County, about seven miles away.

So it’s a dark and stormy night, and we’re sitting in the proverbial isolated farmhouse, with lots of big windows and flimsy doors, surrounded by cornfields and our own woods backing up on a few hundred more acres of cornfields. I have already learned to be careful when I take the dogs out at night because the coyotes around here are numerous and aggressive. And there have been consistent and credible reports in recent years of large cats, probably escapees from just such private zoos, being spotted (and in one case photographed) in our area.

And now we apparently had a wave of ticked-off tigers, grizzlies and lions headed our way. What I wanted at that moment was a bunch of floodlights and an AK-47. What we had were two arthritic dogs, both largely deaf, and a whole lot of useless but no doubt tasty cats. Around 2 am it occurred to me that for any large and hungry carnivore downwind of us, our house would smell like a big box of food. And these critters were accustomed to being around (and fed by) people, so the natural shyness that keeps coyotes (mostly) at bay would be, as HR Haldeman would say, inoperable.

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