About TWD

By the 1960s, my parents had branched out into writing books, creating a series of reference works that included “It’s Easy to Increase Your Vocabulary” and “The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage,” and culminated in the popular “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.” My father had accepted the position of Editor-in-Chief of the American Heritage Dictionary, an ambitious project that would, after nearly ten years, result in a dictionary that many authorities today regard as a revolutionary leap in American lexicography.

While my father was at the office during the week, my mother labored at home over stacks of manuscript pages. On the weekends, my father would rise by seven at the latest to work on his columns for the coming week, and I awoke each Saturday morning to the sound of his ancient Royal upright manual typewriter pounding away downstairs like thunder in the distance (although not quite distant enough to sleep through). By the time I graduated from high school, our second-floor library/guest bedroom had been turned into a full-time office buried under stacks of manuscripts and reference materials, and when I headed off to college, my parents quickly filled my old bedroom with files, boxes of correspondence, and spare encyclopedias. By the early 1980s, my parents were both working at home, churning out six newspaper columns every week as well as producing books on English usage and word origins.

Then suddenly, in 1986, my mother died, leaving my father to carry on alone. Given the circumstances, my father carried on quite well, continuing to write his newspaper column and maintaining an active social and professional life, travelling abroad and making new friends.

By the early 1990s, however, my father had understandably tired of writing a daily newspaper column for more than 35 years. He announced his intention to retire his column at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon when most of his children, now grown and with families and careers of their own, happened to be present. Words, Wit and Wisdom, he declared, was kaput. “Unless,” he added in what had become a very quiet room, “one of you is interested in writing it.”

I don’t think my father actually expected any one of us to take him up on his offer. All three of my sisters had done editorial work on my parents’ books, and all six of us had long become accustomed to being tapped as sources for current slang. But none of us had ever, to my knowledge, entertained the thought of stepping into our parents’ professional shoes. To me, certainly, the very expertise and erudition that had made my father successful and famous also precluded any such fantasies on my part. My father had worked with H.L. Mencken, had been a professional lexicographer for fifty years, and counted among his friends a constellation of intellectual luminaries. So I was as surprised as anyone at the table when, in the awkward silence that followed my father’s momentous announcement, I heard myself say “I’ll give it a shot,” ignoring the voice in the back of my head shouting “Whaddayou, nuts or something? You can’t write a daily newspaper column!” Almost as soon as I opened my mouth I began to wish I’d kept it shut, but it was too late.

I spent the next few months poring over stacks of my parents’ back columns and studying books on word origins and the evolution of English, and in the process I made two important discoveries: first, that I was absolutely fascinated by the subject itself, and, second, that I knew much more about the English language than I had thought I did. The combination of my own grounding in English, my somewhat dusty but sound grasp of Latin, and more than thirty years of incidental linguistic knowledge gleaned from my parents via dinner table osmosis, combined to allay my initial terror at the thought of writing about etymology. My father and I worked out a collaborative arrangement that allowed me to write one or two columns per week, which he would then review and tune up, if necessary, before tossing them into the mix with his own columns. To my surprise, my father did very little fiddling with my writing, and Words, Wit and Wisdom soon began appearing in newspapers around the world under the byline of William and Evan Morris.

Almost as soon as I began writing the column with my father, I discovered that I was far from being alone in my fascination with the stories behind words. Mentioning the column in casual conversation with nearly anyone, from my dentist to the proprietor of the corner newsstand, would be certain to elicit either a favorite word-origin story to share or a question about an obscure term that had been simmering unanswered in the back of their minds for years.

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