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March 2009 Issue


Well, Spring has officially sprung here at TWD World Headquarters.  Twitchy the Squirrel is eating himself sick at the bird feeder, the mourning doves are building nests in the most inappropriate places imaginable (atop the door post of the garage, for instance, making every day a series of heart-stopping alarms for the little feathered idiots), and twilight brings vast herds of rabbits running in circles on the lawn.  Best of all, Babs and Monroe, our two resident turkey vultures, have returned from their winter hideaway (Palm Beach?  Costa Rica?) to nest, as they do every year, in our spooky dead tree down by the road.  If you follow that link, you’ll see that vultures have gotten a bad rap in popular culture and are actually peaceful, devoted family birds that only want to help us.  They are also seriously cool close up.  In the afternoon Babs and Monroe swoop low over our side yard, 10 or 15 feet off the ground, and they are huge.  As the article notes, vultures are almost voiceless, unlike the red-tailed hawks around here, which have a chillingly primal scream.  The only noise I’ve ever heard Babs and Monroe make is a kind of very loud huffing sound, like a large bull snorting.

It really is like living in a zoo.  Whenever the emergency squad takes off from the firehouse in town a few miles away, every coyote within earshot chimes in with mournful howling.  I was out late with Brownie and Pokie a few nights ago when the squad took attendance, indicating that there were several coyotes in the underbrush about a hundred feet from us.  Uh, time to go inside, girls.

Onward.  All of the columns in this month’s issue were actually written (and sent to newspapers and subscribers) in August and September of last year, so please do not be alarmed by the anachronistic references to the election, etc., to be found therein.  The solution for folks who do find this sort of thing disquieting is, of course, to subscribe, which brings us to the nudge du jour.  As I said last month, things are getting grim around here.  Newspapers are dropping like flies, book publishing is on the ropes, and my multiple sclerosis precludes my getting a job doing something else.

Worst of all, the dismal state of the economy has dramatically reduced the number of readers able to subscribe, cutting my income from this site to nearly nothing just at the point when it was stepping into a starring role in our financial drama.

So, please consider subscribing for a measly $15 per year. A pittance, really. You’ll never even notice it’s gone. But you’ll be making a passel of kittens very happy.   (Actual kitten shown at left.)

If you can’t swing a subscription at the moment, please consider donating any amount ($1, $5, $32 billion, etc.) via the PayPal button below:

Incidentally, if you happened to visit this site earlier this week, and you were using Microsoft Internet Explorer, you may have noticed that the entire site seemed to be weirdly garbled. Sorry about that. There was a malformed tag in a widget in the left sidebar that didn’t affect Firefox at all but caused IE to have a nervous breakdown. Just a little glitch, only took me two solid hours to figure it out. People sometimes write me with suggestions for improvements to pass along to my “web designer.” Ha. I am the man behind the curtain, folks. There is no staff, there are no assistants. Just moi.

Lastly, our sister websites Ask for It by Name! and My Favorite Word have recently been updated.  I will do my best to keep them current from now on.

And now, on with the show

Tilting at windmills

I have the dim neighbor.  Anybody got a spare horse?

Dear Word Detective:  I don’t know why, but lately I’ve been unable to rid my consciousness of the phrase “tilting at windmills.”  Unable to, and hardly more willing to, find it anywhere, I turn to you and your wonderful staff for help. — Richard Clow.

That’s a good question, but I’m afraid my wonderful staff won’t be of much help, as they are occupied (quite literally) at the moment by an infestation of fleas.  Gus the Cat is perched atop the Frigidaire scratching furiously, and Pokie the Dog is apparently so intent on chewing her tail that she hasn’t answered the phone all week.  But I’ll do my best to carry on without them.

“To tilt at windmills” is a venerable English idiom meaning to pursue an unrealistic,  impractical, or impossible goal, or to battle imaginary enemies.  In current usage, “tilting at windmills” carries connotations of engaging in a noble but unrealistic (usually wildly unrealistic) effort, an endeavor which may garner the admiration of onlookers but which usually strikes other people as delusional (“Rather eccentric … inclined to tilt at windmills,” Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile, 1937).  The phrase is especially popular in the US media during the presidential election season every four years, when at least two or three candidates pop up who have something to say but exactly zero chances of actually winning.

The first occurrence of this phrase found in print so far (in the form “fight with windmills”) dates to 1644, which is remarkable because the source of the phrase had first been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, and in Spanish to boot.  The relative rapidity of the spread of the phrase in English is a tribute to the enormous popularity of its source, the novel “Don Quixote” (in full, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha”) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in English in 1620.   In Cervantes’ story, a retired eccentric obsessed with the ideals of medieval chivalry imagines himself a knight and sets out on a quest for adventure, which is made considerably more dramatic by the fact that “Don Quixote” (as the hero has dubbed himself) misinterprets just about everything he encounters.  In the relevant passage early on in Quixote’s sojourn, he and his companion Sancho Panza (a dim neighbor he has recruited as his squire) encounter some windmills, which Don Quixote charges on his horse, his knight’s lance extended, believing them to be not windmills, but malevolent giants.

Had they actually been giants, of course, Quixote’s effort would have been noble but probably futile.  The fact that they were actually windmills made the episode a perfect metaphor for an effort that is noble and futile but also deluded and a bit silly.  “Tilt” in the phrase “tilting at windmills” is an antiquated sense of the verb “to tilt” meaning “to engage in combat,” specifically for two mounted knights to charge each other with lances extended.

The enduring popularity of “Don Quixote” is also the source of our English adjective “quixotic” (usually pronounced “kwik-SAH-tik,” in contrast to “Quixote,” which is usually pronounced “kee-HOH-tee”).  “Quixotic,” as you would expect, means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals,” but also carries connotations of “unpredictable” and “fickle.”

Hoodoo & Cake

Obviously undermedicated.

Dear Word Detective: In the poem “Casey at the Bat,” one line reads “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake.” Why is Flynn a “hoodoo” and Blake a “cake”? — Robert L. O’Brien.

Hooray for baseball, the one sport, in my opinion, worth watching. Unfortunately, year after year, I keep forgetting to actually watch any games on TV. But I know I like baseball because if I happen to tune in halfway through a game, I’m perfectly happy to watch the rest of it. I don’t even care who’s playing.

Of course, if I were a real baseball fan, I’d probably be able to recite “Casey at the Bat” from memory. It’s not only the most famous sports poem ever written, but it’s been declared the most famous poem of any kind written by an American, and it’s certainly been the most widely performed and recorded. Written by Ernest L. Thayer and originally published in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1888, “Casey” tells the story of the fictional Mudville team’s crunch moment in a game, losing by two runs with two outs in the ninth inning. All hope rests on “mighty Casey,” the local star, who comes to bat with runners on second and third.

Flynn and Blake are those runners, and the mere fact that they both get base hits is considered a small miracle, as reflected in the poem’s third stanza: “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake; So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat, For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.”

You’ll notice that the word applied to Flynn is “lulu,” not “hoodoo.” Thayer’s original poem was modified several times after its original publication, and later versions changed “lulu” to “hoodoo,” though why the change was made is unclear. A “lulu” in baseball slang of the period was “an unskilled player,” probably a sarcastic use of “lulu” meaning “something very good.” A “hoodoo,” however, was a player whose very presence was a jinx, bad luck. I guess someone though that changing “lulu” to “hoodoo” (probably just a modification of “voodoo”) would heighten the tension of the poem.

“Cake” was also slang at the time for “a player of dubious skill,” which is nearly the opposite of the use of “cake” in current baseball slang to mean “something very easy” (a shortening of “piece of cake”). In The Annotated Casey at the Bat, Martin Gardner explains that “cake” when Thayer wrote his poem was “a slang word of the time for a dude, dandy, or male homosexual. Here it probably means no more than a handsome, vain ball player, much concerned about his personal appearance, but a weak player.” Later versions of the poem changed “cake” to “fake.”

But while Flynn and Blake may have been considered weak players, at least they got base hits. As for Casey, he gave the world the immortal final stanza of the poem: “Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; But there is no joy in Mudville— mighty Casey has struck out.”