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Diner / Dinor

I’ll take a jumbo hoagie with a side of BRAINS!

Dear Word Detective: Many small restaurants in the Northwestern Pennsylvania area, especially those built from a trolley or railroad dining car, have the spelling “dinor” on their sign. Is this only for this area or is this found anywhere else? And why this spelling? — Tenderrlee Hughes.

Why? Why ask why? Oh right, because this is a column where I answer questions. OK, well, if you read the fine print I plan to add to my web page as soon as we’re finished here, it says that twice every year, when faced with a weirdly disturbing question, I am allowed to paraphrase the classic line from the 1974 film Chinatown. If you’ve never seen Chinatown, you need to go watch it right now. I’ve seen it about twelve times, so I’ll wait here. Back so soon? No, I’m not talking about “My sister, my daughter…,” much as I love that scene. I mean the final line of the movie, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Well, forget it, it’s Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, you see, is weird. Ask any dialectician. Pennsylvania has enough strange terms, phrases and pronunciations found nowhere else to raise serious questions about lost colonies of Martians and the duplicitous government agencies that cover them up. Furthermore, judging by the way “people” in Pennsylvania talk, we’re dealing with more than just one alien settlement. Pennsylvanians in the Philadelphia area in the eastern part of the state, for instance, tend to pronounce “merry” like the rest of us say “Murray” and “sure” like “shore.” They also tend to transport their small children in a “baby coach” down the “pavement,” which is what Earthlings call a “sidewalk.”

But, as is generally true in the US, the further west you go, the weirder it gets. I have always believed that when driving through central Pennsylvania it’s best to avoid stopping and to keep your arms and hands inside the car because of the zombies, but eventually you hit Pittsburgh and all hope is lost. While Philadelphia can boast of enriching generations of cardiologists by inventing the “cheesesteak,” Pittsburghians will forever be known for persistently referring to bologna lunch meat (aka “baloney”) as, for some inscrutable reason, “jumbo.” Compared to that, the local use of “nebby” to mean “nosy” (“neb” being an old English dialect word for “beak”) and “to redd up” for “to clean” seem almost normal.

Given the notable quirks of language in Pennsylvania, spelling “diner” as “dinor” seems only mildly strange. But the fact that it’s only spelled that way in the immediate vicinity of Erie in the northwestern corner of the state is very strange indeed. Yet when you plug “dinor” into Google, you get tons of hits for restaurants using that spelling in their names, and they’re all (cue the spooky music) around Erie.

A “diner,” of course, is a small, economical eatery, originally housed in a railway dining car (known as “diners” since the 1890s) retired and refitted as a stationary structure. The term “diner” was first applied to a non-mobile restaurant in the 1930s, and even today “diners” are often built to resemble the railroad cars they never were, complete with gleaming metal siding and aerodynamically-rounded corners. The New York City area used to be home to hundreds of such diners, often run by Greek immigrants, but the herd has been tragically thinned in recent years by the predations of the fast food empires. The classic Greek diner menu, twenty pages of colorful photos of improbable dishes, all supposedly available around the clock, really belongs in the Smithsonian.

As to why the folks around Erie spell “diner” as “dinor,” nobody knows, and nobody elsewhere, as far as I can tell, does it. My guess is that it started back in the middle of the last century (the heyday of the diner) with a simple typographical error in a sign, which was then copied and spread when other diners in town were established. Being somewhat isolated and off the beaten track up there in northwestern Pennsylvania probably helped. Or maybe it’s just a zombie thing.

Kip & Spike

Pick a peck of soul-crushing boredom.

Dear Word Detective: What do the English words “kip” and “spike” mean? I found them in Orwell’s biography in Wikipedia, but I could not find any proper definitions in any dictionary. — Jana, Czech Republic.

Thanks for an interesting question. Then again, it’s hard to imagine an uninteresting question that involves George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair, 1903-50), author of 1984, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, and many other books and essays. The Wikipedia page about Orwell actually does a good job of briefly recounting his peripatetic and amazing life.

The two terms you encountered, “kip” and “spike,” are both associated with Orwell in the 1930s, when he set out to document the conditions of London’s poor and homeless. Orwell dressed as a vagrant and frequented the dive bars, flophouses and hangouts of the poor, and his experiences furnished the material for his first published essay, titled “The Spike” (1931). His further experiences “undercover” in London (and elsewhere) eventually resulted in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London,” published in 1933.

Of the two terms, “kip” is the easier to explain. A “kip” in the sense Orwell meant it is a lodging house, usually humble, in which beds are rented by the night or week. “Kip” is also used in extended senses of “a bed in such a place,” “a bed” in general, or even “sleep” in a general sense (“I got to have a rest. I ain’t had no kip,” 1938). “Kip” in this sense first appeared in print in 1879, but it had been used in the sense of “brothel” since 1766. It appears to be related to the Danish word “kippe,” meaning “hut” or “low alehouse” (i.e., a “dive” bar).

“Spike” takes a bit more explaining, but it’s also a more interesting word. In Orwell’s accounts of life among the poor and homeless, a “spike” was a workhouse, a public shelter for the homeless where food and board were supplied (just barely) in exchange for menial work performed by the residents. Workhouses (or “poorhouses”) had been established in England in the 14th century, but were still common in the 1930s. Originally established to care for the poor and indigent, workhouses proliferated in the 18th and 19th century, and depended on the labor of their residents to remain solvent. The labor usually consisted of mind-numbing tasks such as crushing stone or “picking” oakum (“He had heard of a work-house, in this city, into which refractory servants are committed, and put to hard labour; such as pounding hemp, grinding plaister of Paris, and picking old ropes into oakum,” 1804).

“Oakum” is the short, coarse fibers of hemp, jute or flax, which are separated from the longer, smoother fibers that are used to spin cloth. Oakum was used to caulk ships, seal plumbing joints, and even as dressings for wounds (“Who should it be but Mr. Daniel, all muffled up … and his right eye stopped with Okum?” Samuel Pepys, Diary, 1666). One source of oakum was old ropes made of hemp, which were laboriously picked apart by hand to free the fibers of oakum for re-use. The picking of oakum from old rope was most often done by hand with a large metal nail, or spike, and it’s likely that the workhouses got the nickname “the spike” from this instrument of long hours of toil. Picking oakum with a spike all day every day was almost certainly the most painfully memorable aspect of life in a “spike.”

Interestingly, the Latin word for oakum was “stuppa,” and back in Roman times “stuppa” was often used to seal the necks of jars or bottles like a stopper. This practice spawned the Late Latin verb “stuppare,” which, a few centuries later, produced our English verb “to stop” in all its senses, from “stopping” the flow of water from a leak to “stopping” a speeding car.



Dear Word Detective: For a few years, I have been trying to figure out if “blithely” and “blindly” have historically been used interchangeably. My understanding of “blithely” is, basically, “doing things without thinking about them, therefore running the danger of doing dangerous things.” And some uses of the word “blind” definitely would fit with that, such as “following someone blindly” or “going blindly forward.” My guess is that some phrases might have originated with either “blind” or “blithe” as the word, and then people misheard them. The reason I have been wondering this is that a couple years back, I studied the history of the organized blind movement. While studying, I learned about the use of blindness as a negative metaphor for the inability or unwillingness to think. I know there are a lot of such phrases, but some at least seem like mistakes. — A. Greenwick.

There are indeed a lot of such phrases, many of which began as metaphors but have become established English idioms, usually in a derogatory sense. Strike the “usually” — I can’t think of a single positive case. One such use that I have watched wax and wane in the course of my life, and currently seems to be increasing again, is the use of “retarded” (or “retard”) applied to a person perceived to be either wrong on some question or simply uncool. This obnoxious use seems especially popular on the internet, where it is, unfortunately, impossible to simply punch the offenders in the nose. Come on, developers. There should be an app for that.

“Blind” first appeared as an adjective in Old English, based on Germanic roots carrying the sense of “sightless” as well as “obscure, dim, in darkness.” But “blind” also brought with it the figurative senses (as enumerated by the Oxford English Dictionary) of “lacking in mental perception, discernment, or foresight; destitute of intellectual, moral, or spiritual light,” and these senses were used in English as often as the literal “sightless” sense. The use of “blind” to mean “undiscriminating, reckless, not discerning, etc.” (“The blind veneration that generally is paid to antiquity,” Hogarth, 1753) dates back at least to the 15th century. So the modern use of “blind” as a negative metaphor is nothing new in English.

“Blithe” is a completely separate word with a much happier history. The roots of “blithe” lie in early Germanic forms meaning “gentle, kind, happy, cheerful” and the like, and the ultimate source of “blithe” seems to be a root meaning “to shine.” Can’t get much cheerier than that. In English, where “blithe” first appeared in Old English, it meant simply “kind or friendly” to others or “happy and cheerful” in demeanor (“His spirit was blithe and its fire unquenchable,” 1872).

This “fun to be around” sense of “blithe” chugged along happy as a clam until the 1920s, when (perhaps reflecting the disillusionment born of World War I) it suddenly took a darker turn. In “England, My England,” a collection of short stories, D.H. Lawrence employed “blithe” in a new, negative sense of “heedless, careless, or unthinking” (“From mother and nurse it was a guerrilla gunfire of commands, and blithe, quicksilver disobedience from the three blonde, never-still little girls.”).

This “who cares?” sense of “blithe” is now, unfortunately, by far the most common (“The era of cheap fuels led to a blithe disregard of second-law fundamentals,” 1977), and seeing “blithe” used in any sense more positive than “unrattled” (“The story’s part-blithe, part-resigned tone … will ring familiar,” LA Times, 3/11/12) is rare.

The relatively-new “heedless, careless, or unthinking” meaning of “blithe” certainly overlaps with the much older figurative uses of “blind,” but I doubt that confusion of the two words has played much part in their evolution (which is not to say that some people haven’t confused them at times). The change of the meaning of “blithe” from “cheerful” to “witless” seems a natural evolution of the sense of the word.