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Dear Word Detective: Recently, upon gazing into the Genesee River Gorge (nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the East, and for good reason!), it occurred to me that there are two seemingly-unrelated meanings of the word “gorge”: (1) To stuff yourself uncomfortably full of food, and (2) the aforementioned “river gorge.” Are these two words related? How did they come about? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

Behold, and tremble before, the awesome power of advertising: you say Genesee, and I immediately think “beer,” and I don’t even like beer. Given my Pavlovian tractability, I guess it’s not surprising that I can sing the entire old Rheingold Beer jingle from memory (“My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer. It’s not bitter, not sweet, it’s the extra dry treat. Won’t you try extra dry Rheingold beer?”). Of course, it didn’t hurt the memorability of that jingle that the melody was lifted from Emile Waldteufel’s catchy Estudiantina waltz. In any case, Genesee Beer is made in your hometown of Rochester in Upstate New York, so all that is at least tangentially relevant.

I found some pictures online of the Genesee River Gorge, a deep, narrow valley cut by the river, which apparently boasts not one, but three dramatic waterfalls. It does look a bit like the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon had far more trees. And I have no doubt that somewhere in that vicinity you can buy bumper stickers proclaiming the Genesee River Gorge “Gorgeous!” (I know you can buy the equivalent in Ithaca, which has smaller, but still very nice, gorges.)

“Gorge” as a noun first appeared in English in the early 15th century with the meaning “throat,” of either humans or animals, derived from the Old French “gorge,” which in turn was based on the Latin “gurges,” meaning “throat, jaws, gullet” (also the source of our English “regurgitate”). A number of the early uses of “gorge” had to do with falconry, but the only literal use of “gorge” you’re likely to see today is in such phrases as “my gorge rose,” describing a growing sense of disgust.

“Gorge” went on to be used in various figurative senses to describe things resembling in some sense a throat, e.g., a narrow passage through a wall. The use of “gorge” for a narrow, deep ravine, especially one cut by a river or containing a stream, arose in the mid-18th century and is particularly apt, given that the water flows through a narrow passage as it would in a throat.

The verb “to gorge” appeared around the same time as the noun, but meant, right from the start, “To fill the gorge; to feed greedily” (Oxford English Dictionary), initially with regard to falcons and other birds of prey (whose throats become “engorged” when they eat a lot of food). But soon “gorge” was also being applied to humans in the sense of “to stuff oneself greedily with food, to eat to excess” (“Dick fell upon eggs and bacon and gorged till he could gorge no more,” Rudyard Kipling, 1891). If you’ve ever been to one of those all-you-can-eat emporiums that dot the US suburbs, you’ve seen “gorging” in all its, uh, glory. That “eat ’til you drop” sense of “gorge” is still the primary one today, but you’ll also often see “gorge” used in a metaphorical sense of “to acquire or take more than is right, to hoard or plunder” (“The single passion of D’Ancre was inordinate avarice; he gorged on wealth,” 1828).

So both “gorge” the noun and “to gorge” the verb are based on the general sense of “throat.” The adjective “gorgeous,” I am obligated to note, is considered unrelated to “gorge,” as it was derived from the Old French “gorgias,” meaning “fine or elegant.” But some authorities have suggested that there is indeed a connection, and that the source of “gorgias” may have been our Old French friend “gorge” (throat), in this case carrying the derivative sense of “jewelry for the throat” (i.e., a necklace), which was then generalized to mean “very beautiful.”


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January 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, this is it, kids. 2012, the mother lode and epicenter of ominous predictions. Just remember, whatever else may happen, that there’s gonna be a lot of space to fill on the lesser cable channels come a year from now, so get your ideas into development asap.

Am I the only person around here who is having real trouble typing the numerals 2012? I know what year it is (most of the time, anyway), but my muscle memory has apparently had a mini-meltdown.

So, this just in: I’ve always been a bit of a news junkie, hardwired into cable news and the internet, but watching one popular uprising after another around the world produce nothing but a new roster of corrupt autocratic stooges (on top of our somewhat more sedate domestic iteration of the same dreary process) has finally, at least temporarily, burned out my political synapses. So I’ve decided to throw in the towel for a while and submerge myself in the soothing balm of the collected works of PG Wodehouse, which I first read many years ago but now seem even funnier. So for the next few weeks months years I plan to use Jeeves’ soothing purr to drown out the barking of the crowd  outside.

Meanwhile, for those of you who persist in paying attention, I suggest you take a gander at All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part documentary made by the remarkable Adam Curtis for the BBC in 2010. It is available, along with many of his other films, at the Internet Archive. Fascinating stuff. It explains the connections between, among other things, Ayn Rand, communes of the 60s, systems theory, the “balance of nature” and the rise of computers.

Speaking of Skynet, I seem to have acquired a NOOK Simple Touch e-reader just in time to watch Barnes & Noble implode completely. Well, it was both cheaper and snappier than the equivalent Kindle, and, unlike the Kindle, lets me add my own books in the widely-used epub format, so if B&N really does buy the farm it won’t be just a paperweight. The rationale for the acquisition (it was a Christmas gift) is that my left hand is largely dysfunctional because of the ms (and my right hand isn’t what it was either). This makes it impossible to handle a large book, especially a hardback. So now I have this little thing, just a bit bigger than a mass-market paperback, on which I am painlessly reading Haruki Murakami’s 944 page 1Q84, which weighs in at about three pounds in hardback, well beyond my comfort zone (I can’t even hold a coffee cup in my left hand). I wish the screen were a bit brighter, but I like the fact that it can’t do anything but show you a book. I actually find reading on this thing very natural, and the fact that I can make the type as large as I like takes away all the stress of trying to focus my eyes on a printed page. I still prefer paper, however, and hope real books are around for a long, long time.

Incidentally, I stopped by the local B&N the other day to buy a simple case for my Nook, and I was taken aback by the palpable desperation of the woman who showed me my choices. She strongly urged me to bring the little fellow in for a visit, perhaps take a class in Advanced Nookery (for a machine that comes with a three-page instruction manual?), buy some Nook bling, or just hang out in the Cafe, guzzling expensive bad coffee while reading ebooks for free. Wow. It was like those old Maytag commercials with Jesse White as the lonely repair guy.

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