Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks. (note: JavaScript must be turned on in your browser to view results.)


Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!




Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.


Archives 2007 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.


If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds

January 2013 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


What about December? You mean December of last year? Sheesh. I think it’s best if we all just look forward, y’know? There’s nothing to be gained by pointing fingers and dwelling on the missteps of the past. Things happened, mistakes were made, water under the bridge, ship sailed, case closed. Besides, what we have here in our shiny new January is one of those increasingly special times when I post an issue of this little circus in the same month as it says at the top of the page.

Anyway, ave atque vale, annus terribilis 2012. Meanwhile, thanks to all our friends who have subscribed and otherwise contributed to our well-being over the past few months. Quite apart from the fact that your support literally makes this site possible, the morale boost it furnishes is the reason I don’t spend my days watching Family Feud reruns.

As for the Great Thanksgiving Norovirus Adventure, I am better now, but not entirely up to snuff yet. Having missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years entirely, I hope to be completely well soon, because I have a lot riding on Arbor Day. Anyway, I have all sorts of fun medical appointments scheduled (I seem to be anemic, among other things). I also have an ophthalmic exam coming up, which I hope will fix my inability to read anything. Seriously. I’ve spent the past two months with vision so blurred that I’m almost completely unable to make out lines of type on a computer screen. I am really hoping that the problem can be resolved by new glasses and isn’t a sudden increase in the irreversible loss of vision associated with multiple sclerosis.

Speaking of computer screens, my big LCD monitor gave up the ghost last year, and after spending a week or so struggling to use an old, dim and yellow 17-inch Dell LCD monitor I had left over from about 2001, I went online at (the totally awesome opposite of larcenous dumps like Best Buy) to see what I could reasonably afford. I discovered that while I was sleeping, the world had dumped the old LCD technology, CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent lamp) backlighting, and taken up with the cheaper, “greener” LED backlighting. OK. Whatever. So I hunted around a bit and found a suspiciously cheap (~$125) 24-inch Dell LED LCD monitor. (I think the deal must have been a drastic sale, actually, because the same monitor is now almost $200). So it comes, I plug it in, and boy howdy, that thing would have been visible from space. I’m now running it at 40% brightness. It looks like it might be sharper than my old LCD, but it’s hard to say because, as I said, I can’t actually read anything on the screen. Grrr.

So at the moment I’m relying on my aging but trusty T60 ThinkPad laptop, which has a slightly dim screen (which is OK because everything around me seems way too bright), but also sports 1024 x 768 resolution (a la 2004) and thus is much easier to read. I love my T60.

Continue reading this post » » »


None for me, thanks.

Dear Word Detective: In DAR records from the 19th century, it was stated that a relative of mine “suffered depredation.” Was the usage of this word different in the 19th century than we would expect today? What would it have meant then? — Karl Gabosh.

Whoa. Blast from the past. By “DAR,” I’m assuming you mean the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization founded in 1896 and open to any woman able to prove that an ancestor had some connection to the American Revolution. My maternal grandmother was active in the DAR, and I vaguely remember being enrolled in the CAR (Children of the American Revolution) myself, though I seem to have forgotten the secret handshake. I believe a tenuous genetic connection to Button Gwinnett was my personal ticket to ride, but I’m probably wrong and expect to be corrected by my more attentive relatives shortly.

It’s hard to say exactly what the DAR records mean by “depredation” without knowing more of the context in which the word is used. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “depredation” as meaning “A predatory attack; a raid,” as well as “Damage or loss; ravage,” giving the example “[Carnegie Hall has] withstood the wear and tear of enthusiastic music lovers and the normal depredations of time” (Mechanical Engineering). So I guess the word today can mean anything from a vicious physical attack to some minor wear and tear on your awnings.

To get a better sense of what the DAR might have meant by “depredation,” we’ll hop in the Wayback Machine and take a gander at the roots of the word. “Depredation” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, modeled on the French “depredation” or “depredacion,” which was in turn derived from the Latin “depraedation,” a noun derived from the verb “depraedare,” which means “to plunder.”

The early literal sense of “depredation” in English was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the action of making a prey of; plundering, pillaging, ravaging.” That’s not surprising, because that Latin “depraedare” was formed from the prefix “de” (in this case meaning “thoroughly”) plus “praedari,” to make prey of, formed on “praeda,” meaning “prey” (and also the source of our English word “prey”).

While “depredation” has certainly been used to mean the act of physically attacking something or someone as a predator (another related word) would, or various acts of robbery or plunder, “depredation” has also long been used in a more figurative sense of “destructive actions, processes or ravages,” as of disease, hunger, exposure, etc. Even natural processes of consumption or evaporation have been described as “depredations” (“The Speedy Depredation of Air upon Watery Moisture, and Version of the same into Air, appeareth in … the sudden discharge … of a little Cloud of Breath, or Vapour, from Glass,” Francis Bacon, 1626). “Depredation” has even been used to mean “harsh literary criticism” (“Sterne truly resembled Shakespeare’s Biron, in the extent of his depredations from other writers,” 1798), although the literary world is often not as different from the cheetah chasing the antelope across the veldt as one might imagine.

Given the wide range of literal and figurative uses to which “depredation” has been put, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the DAR record means by the word. The 19th century didn’t assign a particular meaning to “depredation,” but considering the historical context it probably was being used to mean something worse than a bad book review. My guess is that it referred to “depredations” at least of poverty or other unfortunate circumstance, but possibly (worst-case scenario) actual physical attack, perhaps during the US Civil War or in its aftermath.


This just in.

Dear Word Detective: If it’s possible to “pre-empt” something, is it possible to just “empt” it? — Jo.

Yeah, sure, there’s an app for that. There must be, right? I discovered the other day that a disturbing number of you people out there read this column on your telephones, which strikes me as fairly weird, and makes me wonder if I should be writing shorter sentences with shorter words. Like this one. In case your bus comes. Or something. I actually did set up a “mobile” version of my website a few months back, but it made my deathless prose look like a ransom note, so I pulled the plug.

“Pre-empt” is one of a class of strange little words (“co-opt” is another) that make many people uncomfortable and drive spell-checkers nuts. It’s the hyphen that does it, but there’s really no way around it unless both words become as commonly used as “cooperate,” which you still frequently see spelled as “co-operate” outside the US. “Pre-empt” is increasingly spelled “preempt” here in the US, but that form still makes me look twice, which is not what you want in a word.

“Empt” actually is a verb in English, but (Star Wars reference ahead) it’s not the verb you’re looking for; it’s related to “empty,” it means “to be or make empty,” and it’s considered obsolete to boot. To “pre-empt,” on the other hand, means “to preclude, to forestall, to prevent an anticipated occurrence or to take action before another person is able to.” We usually hear “pre-empt” in the TV sense of “replacing a scheduled program or event with another deemed more important,” but it’s also commonly used in the “act before someone else has a chance” sense (“It is hoped the move could pre-empt an announcement by the Government that it has found a way to alter planning laws,” 2005).

“Pre-empt” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century, and the verb was actually a “back-formation” from the noun “pre-emption,” which dates back to about 1600. (“Back-formation” occurs when a simpler word, often a verb, is created from an older, more complex form. The verb “to sculpt,” for instance, was formed long after “sculptor” appeared.)

Pre-emption,” of course, is also commonly used today meaning simply “the act of pre-empting” in all its various senses.

But the original meaning of “pre-emption” gives a hint as to its source. When “pre-emption” first appeared, it was in the specific sense of “The purchase by one person or party before an opportunity is offered to others; the right of making such a purchase in certain circumstances” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word was formed from the prefix “pre” (before) plus “emption,” a legal term meaning “to buy.” The root of “emption” was the Latin verb “emere,” to buy; the agent-noun of that verb is “emptor,” famous from the Latin phrase “Caveat emptor,” or “Let the buyer beware.”

There have been several legal doctrines based on various “rights of pre-emption,” usually entitling either the state to seize property or a private party to purchase public property with a promise to improve it. When a new law overrides an existing one, that process is also called “pre-emption.” There’s also the military tactic of “pre-emption,” making a surprise “pre-emptive” attack on a putative enemy deemed sufficiently threatening. And, if the conflict is sufficiently momentous, such a “pre-emptive” attack will probably result, at least on the “pre-empting” end, in “pre-emption” of America’s Top Model by men in ornate uniforms standing in front of maps, at which point it might be a good idea to meditate a bit on “caveat emptor.”