About TWD

Soon after I began writing the column, I discovered that I possessed another tool that would prove immensely valuable in untangling the histories of words and phrases — a healthy skepticism. Many of the questions my father and I received from readers asked about the truth of a story the reader had heard about the origin of a word or phrase. Was “cop” actually an acronym for “Constable on Patrol”? Did “hooker” really spring from the fondness of Civil War General Joseph Hooker and his men for camp followers? (The answer being a resounding “no” in both cases.) I quickly came to regard every “remarkable” word origin story I encountered with the jaundiced eye and prove-it-buddy attitude I had honed on the streets of New York City, and I was rarely disappointed in my quest for linguistic balderdash to debunk. One of the lessons I have learned over the last decade is that the more interesting or heartwarming or unusual or “cool” a word origin story is, the less likely it is to reside in the same ballpark as the truth. And I have learned the hard way that entertaining but unsubstantiated etymologies have a distressing tendency to make their way into print, so I do my best to never to accept and promulgate popular word stories without making darn sure that I either solidly verify them or label them as only “possibilities.”

Unfortunately, my determination not to endorse etymological fables has sometimes been distressingly at odds with the apparent prevailing public desire to believe all sorts of nonsense about word origins, and some of my readers are not shy about making their wishes, and delusions, quite clear. “You say that the origin of ‘the whole nine yards’ is unknown,” goes a typical letter of a certain sort, “but some simple research conducted even by a boob such as yourself would reveal that the phrase was invented by my Uncle Floyd in 1957, when he successfully escaped from a Venusian spacecraft using a ladder exactly nine yards long constructed from dental floss. Somewhere in my attic I have a letter from Ed Sullivan confirming this fact. Why won’t you print the truth?”

Occasionally an especially emphatic reader letter prompts me to reconsider my decision, years ago, not to pursue my first career choice, dog grooming. “Your claim that the word ‘thug’ originally came from ‘thuggee,’ ritual strangulation and robbery supposedly practiced by followers of the Hindu goddess Kali (whom you describe as possessing ‘huge glowing red eyes, fangs, and necklace of human skulls’), is ridiculous,” wrote one reader a few years ago, who then went on to helpfully inform me that “The many modern followers of the great Goddess Kali have no use for the slanderous antics of mouth-breathing morons like you. I’d be careful whose Goddess you offend, especially since Kali liked to drink the blood of her opponents in battle! Be warned: we are not amused.” After I emerged from meditating on this letter in my coat closet a few weeks later, I spent the next several months checking for glowing red eyes on every subway train I boarded. Eventually I concluded that it was impossible to distinguish between disgruntled Kali fans and disgruntled Mets fans, so I gradually relaxed. I recalled that my father had spawned similar outrage in the mid-1960s when he dared to suggest in print that Ringo Starr was not exactly the world’s greatest drummer, a parallel which comforted me (although the bit about Kali drinking the blood of her enemies seemed a bit more serious than the wrath of a few thousand irate Beatles fans).

After a few weeks of laboriously hunting-and-pecking my columns on an old Underwood manual typewriter, I reluctantly broke down, dipped my bruised digits into my bank account, and bought my first computer. Within a few months I was collecting the columns I wrote for newspapers into a bimonthly illustrated newsletter, which I offered to readers for the princely sum of $10 per year, an amount scientifically calculated to land me in the poorhouse as quickly as possible. In considering possible names for my new project, I decided to recycle the name of a radio program my father had produced years earlier, The Word Detective.

The Word Detective newsletter was an immediate success with its hundreds of subscribers, but each month saw an increasing number of copies returned to me in small plastic bags after having been stomped, shredded, and often apparently chewed in transit by unknown parties. Just as I was about to throw in the towel, however, the internet arrived to save my bacon.

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