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December 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Yay, December! OK, I’m outta here.

Just kidding. Hey, it’s the holiday season, right? Speaking of which, I was reminded, when they lit the tree at Rockefeller Center recently, of the day when I took a shortcut through there on my way to work one morning years ago. Crews were rigging electrical cables, etc., in preparation for the ceremony that evening, and as I walked down a side street off the main concourse (in front of the old AP building, if that rings a bell), I saw something remarkable. It was a real live reindeer, apparently awaiting its turn on some camera, tethered to a concrete block in the middle of the street. There was no one around, so I walked over, talked to it and petted it for a few minutes. Its antlers and its hooves were covered with soft, fuzzy fur. Who knew? It was perfectly friendly and seemed to appreciate the attention. It was awesome. It was like running into the real Santa Claus hanging out on the corner. I briefly considered absconding with the critter, but I was running late and so went on to my office. Twenty years later, that remains one of my most vivid memories of Christmas in New York. Reindeer are cool.

Elsewhere in holiday cheer, for some reason (probably because House Hunters seems to be on hiatus) we ended up watching The Polar Express on the Disney Channel the other night. I didn’t even know we got the Disney Channel, but we do, and boy howdy, what a weird, grim little movie this is. If that’s a holiday classic, count me out.

I was vaguely familiar with the children’s book on which it is based from seeing it in bookstores (you remember bookstores, right?), and I’m willing to accept that the book itself is charming. I also have a long-standing love of trains. But the book is all of 32 pages long and heavily illustrated. This movie is a 100-minute computer-generated bummer, the most relentlessly depressing kids’ movie I’ve ever seen.

The big problem is the “motion capture” computer animation technique used to transform live-action figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, who “plays” most of the roles) into affectless droids in a sort of ultra-realistic cartoon virtual reality. The result would probably work well in a zombie movie (Zombie Santa and the Elves from Hell, perhaps, or Rudolf the Undead Reindeer Goes to Uncanny Valley), but here the result is just plain creepy. It’s like watching an extended version of one of those cutesy and cloying animated pharmaceutical commercials. (It’s too bad; done with high-quality real animation (not CGI), this could have been a beautiful movie. The pure-animation parts, e.g., the wolves in the woods, are very evocative.)

Unfortunately, the color palette is muted and depressing, and padding the brief story out to movie length is done with painfully drawn-out and pointless scenes (e.g., the ten minutes of the flying ticket). The North Pole turns out to look like a cross between a Supermax prison and an Amazon warehouse, and the sweeping panoramas of grim and lifeless North Pole streets are notable for their vacant desolation. Not a creature is stirring in Santagrad.

Roger Ebert loved the movie, but some other reviewers strongly differed, and Manohla Dargis at the NYT, bless her soul, nailed it, noting that “Santa’s big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes … one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.'” Did I mention that the elves — and Santa! — are also weirdly nasty?

The whole thing makes Olive Kitteridge look like Mary Poppins. Yeah, we watched that too. I’m trying hard to forget both these bundles of holiday joy, but so far it’s clearly not working.

Onward. CatCat abides, and is getting better at this “cat” thing. She still has problems lip-syncing her meows, which is a bit unsettling. She opens her mouth and there’s a half-second of no noise, then a weirdly loud mechanical maowrr that kinda sounds feline. Oh well, baby steps, baby steps. My current theory is that she’s from the North Pole.

So here we are at year’s end, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters wish you a happy and healthy New Year.

And now, on with the show….

Revolting / Revolve

Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the word “revolting.” It means “disgusting,” right? But it seems to have similar roots to “revolution” and “revolve.” Could you tell us how those words relate? — Emily Colby.

Good question, and you’re correct in your suspicion that “revolting” is closely connected to “revolution” and “revolve.” Incidentally, I went wandering over to Wikipedia just now and learned (supposedly — one never knows) something. The classic catchphrase “What a revoltin’ development this is!” was popularized by the seminal 1950s US TV show “The Life of Riley,” starring the awesome William Bendix. However, although Bendix had starred in the long-running 1940s “Life of Riley” radio show (as well as a spin-off movie), the role of Riley in the first season on TV was played by Jackie Gleason. Weird. Gleason, of course, went on to play a similar character in The Honeymooners.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the whole story begins with the verb “revolve,” which appeared in English in the 15th century, derived, via French, from the Latin “revolvere” (“re,” back or again, plus “volvere,” to turn). In English, “revolve” has developed dozens of senses based on either a literal or figurative “turning around” or “turning back,” from the earth “revolving” around the Sun to now-rare senses meaning to “turn over,” or deeply consider, something in one’s mind (“Here [Martin] Luther touched upon a question that he had revolved in his mind with earnestness during the preceding months.” 1907).

The past participle form of that Latin “revolvere” was “revoltus,” which English acquired in the 14th century, through Old French, as “revolution.” The initial meaning of “revolution” in English was simply “the act of revolving,” especially in a repetitive fashion, e.g., the revolution of planets, the annual cycle of seasons, etc. More mundane uses, such as the measurement of the speed of an engine, are familiar today in the abbreviation “RPM,” meaning “revolutions per minute.”

But by the early 15th century, “revolution” had developed an additional and very different meaning, based on the use of “revolve” to mean “turn over.” “Revolution” came to mean a complete “overturn” of the established order, whether in science, literature, the economic system or breakfast cereals (“Numbers of young men … studied Karl Marx; and were so convinced … that the Revolution was fixed for 1889.” G.B. Shaw, 1889).

“Revolt” came from the same sources as “revolve” and “revolution,” but arrived in English in the mid-16th century by a slightly different route. Originally meaning to abandon a leader orĀ  switch sides in a dispute, “revolt” soon broadened to mean to arise in rebellion, engage in revolution, and overthrow the established order. By the late 17th century, “revolt” had also developed the sense of “to react with repugnance or disgust to something,” often a custom, idea, social convention or injustice (“The heart instinctively revolts against the unnatural privations which are imposed upon it.” 1829). In the early 18th century, a transitive form appeared, and people spoke of being revolted by things they found disgusting or repellent (“Strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions.” 1935). So the things we find “revolting” are those that cause our feelings, morals, tastes, or even gastrointestinal tracts, to rebel, sometimes violently.


They went that-a-way, back toward Wall Street.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word “cop” or point me in the right direction? — Denny.

Right direction? Sure. Personally, I’m just glad you’re not writing to ask, as a dismaying number of people do, how to become a detective, “the real kind, like on TV.” I usually tell them that the best way is to just keep watching lots of TV. I should get an award for keeping those people on their couches. But the truly scary thing is when people send me long accounts of crimes they want me to solve. I forward those to Matlock.

I’m assuming that you’re asking about “cop” in the sense of “police officer,” rather than the 15th century word “cop” meaning “spider” (an alternate form of which, “cob,” gave us “cobweb”). Fun fact: when I was growing up, referring to a police-person as a “cop” was considered disrespectful, almost akin to swearing; the preferred term was “policeman” or, later, “police officer,” which always struck me as both ungainly and creepily deferential. Then again, I’ve yet to get used to the term “Homeland Security.” I keep imagining Dorothy in Oz saying, “There’s no place like Homeland” with the theme from The Sound of Music playing.

There are, as you might expect, a number of explanations frequently offered for “cop” as slang for a person of the police persuasion, a term which first appeared in print in the mid-19th century and can be assumed to have been in oral use long before that. Perhaps the most popular theory traces “cop” to the longer form “copper” (which appeared at roughly the same time) and suggests that “copper” and “cop” originally referred to copper buttons, supposedly a feature of early police uniforms. Alternatively, “copper” is said to come from the copper badges supposedly worn by police at that time, a theory often elaborated by positing copper badges for sergeants, brass for patrolmen, and silver for higher ranks. As you can tell from the frequency of the word “supposedly” above, neither of those theories has withstood investigation. Nor has the runner-up, the theory that “cop” was originally an acronym for “Constable on Patrol.” Acronyms were vanishingly rare before World War Two, let alone in the mid-19th century, and there’s absolutely no evidence for that one.

Fortunately, the fact that such dandy “copper” theories have come a cropper, as Sherlock Holmes might say, does not mean the trail of “cop” and “copper” has gone cold. “Cop” as slang for “police officer” almost certainly comes ultimately from the Latin verb “capere,” meaning “to snatch or seize” (which also gave us the verb “to capture”). “Cop” as a verb first appeared in the early 18th century with the meaning “to capture, lay ahold of, nab,” and is still used in this sense in such phrases as “cop a quick meal” or “cop a nap” (“The privileged driver, on dropping his fare … almost invariably ‘cops’ a job on his way back,” 1868). The verb “to cop” also was (and still is) used to mean “to steal,” and in such phrases as “to cop a plea” (take an advantageous deal in court) and “cop out” (to take an opportunity to abandon a job, one’s principles, etc.).

It’s likely that the use of “cop” by criminals to mean “to steal” led more than a few police officers in the 19th century to reject the term, perhaps regarding it as an implicit allegation of dishonesty. But the use of “cop” in the “police” sense comes from the underworld use of “cop” to mean “capture,” especially arrest by the police (“Prisoner said, ‘Yes, I am the man. I am glad you have copped me.'” 1888). A “cop” in this sense was simply someone who “cops” criminals, making “copper” a job description completely unrelated to the metal “copper.”