About TWD

The Word Detective on the Web is the online version of The Word Detective, a newspaper column answering readers’ questions about words and language. The Word Detective is written by Evan Morris and appears in finer newspapers in the U.S., Mexico and Japan.

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Had been promised an ice cream soda.

Since 1995, my columns have been posted on the web a few months after they are carried in newspapers. All my columns eventually appear, in complete form, free for anyone to read, on this web site.

As a way to support this website, however, many readers pay $15/yr. to subscribe to TWD-By-Email, a biweekly mailing list where I post my columns at the same time newspapers receive them. Subscribing to the TWD mailing list is the easiest way to read the latest columns without having to check this website every few weeks. It’s also the best way to ensure that this website continues to exist.

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This is the introduction to The Word Detective, a collection of these columns published by Algonquin Books in 2000:

Introduction

It all started with sticky dimes. It was 1958, I was eight years old, and my older sister and I sat in the library of my family’s home in suburban Connecticut, opening the dozen or so envelopes that had arrived in the day’s mail. Each envelope contained ten cents in some form — usually dimes or nickels taped securely to small pieces of cardboard, but sometimes a hodgepodge of stamps — and it was our job to extract the loot and sort it dutifully into plastic salad bowls. A grownup would probably have regarded our task as tedious, but we, innocent of child labor laws, had begged our parents to let us open the letters.

In my eight-year-old world, encountering just one letter containing actual money would have been a memorable event. A pile of such magic envelopes was a postal miracle that boggled my small mind, on a par with having the Tooth Fairy drop by for dinner. As a matter of fact, I was beginning to have my doubts about the Tooth Fairy’s existence, but here was solid evidence of a Mail Fairy out there somewhere with an apparently inexhaustible supply of sticky dimes.

To my parents, however, the dimes were simply the fruits of a good idea. My father was Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap, a large publishing firm in New York City. Several years earlier he had begun writing a syndicated newspaper column called Words, Wit and Wisdom, answering readers’ questions about word origins and language usage, and he had learned several useful things about his readers from the questions they sent in. His readers were very insecure about the size of their vocabularies, they were similarly worried about making grammatical errors, and they were fascinated and often mystified by “teen” slang. My parents’ good idea was to produce simple, helpful pamphlets on each of these topics and market them through my father’s column for ten cents each. The response from readers was phenomenal, and soon my sister and I were stuffing envelopes with copies of “The Morris Self-Scoring Home Vocabulary Test,” a hipster glossary called “The Real Gone Lexicon” and similar creations.

I was aware of my father’s vocation, of course, although I tended to view his profession through the pragmatic prism of a young boy’s interests. I was oblivious to the fact that Grosset published some of the most popular novels of the 1950s, but I was thrilled that my father apparently possessed the keys to a bottomless trove of the Hardy Boys, Steve Canyon and Tom Swift, Jr. books I loved.

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