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March 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Hey, it’s still March. And it snowed here the other day, real whiteout conditions. So there.

Today is Spring-like, which seems to lift the birdies’ spirits but fills me with dread. There’s four acres, more or less, of grass out there that’s going to start growing, and I am utterly incapable of mowing it. Our only working mower is a little push machine, the aged garden tractor having at last given up the ghost, and I can’t convincingly walk across the room, so using that is not an option. Neither can we pay the $75 bucks per week, minimum, to have it done. We also have five, count ’em, five fallen trees scattered around the place, plus two that are ready to go. One would think that folks around here would like them for firewood, but apparently not, and tree services are ruinously expensive. I also am faced with having to buy dentures if I wish to keep eating, and that’s my priority (not that I have the money, but, y’know, just in terms of priorities).

The neighbors are already cranky about the fact that 3/4 of our land is wild brush, so this should be an interesting summer. Maybe I’ll just put a big sign in the front yard reading Fairfield County Pick-Your-Own Snake Farm.

Elsewhere, Richard Cohen, who is married to Meredith Vieira and has had multiple sclerosis nearly all his life, has been undergoing experimental therapy and reporting the experience on his blog. I admire his courage and hope it helps. My form (primary-progressive) doesn’t have any approved drug therapies, which is just as well, since I could never afford them and would be very leery of the documented side-effects even if I could.

Onward. I was browsing Netflix Instant recently, and came across a listing for John Huston’s last film, his 1987 adaptation of The Dead, which is, of course, the final story in the collection Dubliners by James Joyce. It’s widely considered one of the finest short stories ever written, and I still remember reading it for the first time decades ago. It stays with you. I’ve seen the film two or three times, and it’s a fine film, but the story, especially the last bit, is essentially unfilmable, and really demands to be read. Go on, I’ll wait here. (Whatever you do, don’t read the leaden synopsis on Wikipedia. It reads like a book report written by a sullen junior high student stuck in detention.)

Meanwhile, back at Netflix, I don’t know how I would have summed up The Dead in twenty words, but I sure hope I’d have done a bit better than:

“After a convivial holiday dinner party, things begin to unravel when a couple addresses some prickly issues concerning their marriage.”

Prickly issues… Oh, I get it. It’s the Irish version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with extra snow, right?

Speaking of Netflix Instant, people seem to have noticed that this kind of service (Hulu, Amazon Prime, Redbox Whatever, etc.) don’t exactly offer top-tier current fare (Netflix Instant Thinking About Adding Good Movie). There are apparently good reasons for this. Personally, I can do just fine without Gravity and the latest Seth Rogen crapfest if I can watch the entire run of The Rockford Files, the first eight seasons of Law & Order (Original Recipe), and such gooey schlock as the UK sci-fi-time-travel series Primeval (raptors in a shopping mall!) whenever I want for eight bucks a month.

Well, anyway, I’ll try to be on time in April. In the meantime, please consider subscribing or simply making a donation to our continued existence.

And now, on with the show….


Well, I’ve seen a few driven by half-wits.

Dear Word Detective: The simple wooden box mounted on two wheels and pulled behind a car to transport bulky and/or heavy objects from the hardware store is known as a trailer. The huge and frightening metal box mounted on 400 wheels and pulled behind an equally huge diesel truck is known as a semi-trailer. Something doesn’t add up. Why is the larger one considered only half of the smaller one? — Jim Brown.

That’s a good question, but before we begin I should note that “big rigs” of the sort you’re talking about usually have eighteen “wheels” (actually tires), not 400. I actually tried to learn to drive one of those things once, and I did OK going forward, but I was absolutely flummoxed by trying to back up to a loading dock. By the way, there is nothing quite like unloading 30-pound bundles of newsprint from a 40-foot steel trailer — by hand — on a lovely August afternoon. It’s like doing push-ups in a microwave oven. Yes, I’ve had some really awful jobs.

“Semi-trailer trucks” (aka “semis”), also known as “tractor-trailer trucks” and, apparently, “articulated lorries” in Britain, have been in use since the early 20th century, but only became really common in the US with the development of the interstate highway system after World War II. The usual configuration of these trucks is a long trailer with eight tires on two axles at the rear of the trailer, pulled by a “tractor” truck unit with ten tires (two axles of four at the rear, one with two in front). Incidentally, a tractor driven with no trailer attached is called “bobtailed,” and is usually a very bumpy ride.

The root sense of “trailer” is “someone who follows a trail” or, more relevantly, “something that is dragged along behind.” The verb “to trail” comes ultimately from the Latin “trahere,” meaning “to drag, draw, pull or haul.” (That “trahere,” incidentally, also gave us the English word “tractor.”) The use of “trailer” to mean an unpowered vehicle towed by a car or truck dates back to around 1890. Interestingly, “trailer” in the sense of “short promotional excerpt from a movie” dates back to 1928. They were originally shown after, not before, the main feature, thus the name.

There are all sorts of trailers in use, from the small cargo trailers you rent and hitch to your car to the sort of “Long, Long Trailer” that gave Lucy and Desi such grief in the 1953 movie of that name. Strictly speaking, a “full trailer” has both front and rear axles and is simply pulled behind the towing vehicle. But the trailer of a semi-trailer truck has no front wheels. The front of the trailer (and about half the trailer’s weight) rests on the rear of the “tractor” (locked in a peg-and-collar gizmo called a “fifth wheel”). The trailer swings separately from the tractor in turns, but in most respects you’re dealing with a single, unified vehicle. Thus the term “semi-trailer” (“semi” here meaning simply “incompletely” or “only half”) distinguishes this arrangement from a “full trailer.”


Pertinent & Impertinent

The whistleblower’s conundrum.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the connection, if any, between “pertinent” and “impertinent”? I’ve always used “pertinent” to mean “relevant” and “impertinent” to mean “disrespectful” or “insolent.” But shouldn’t “impertinent” simply mean “irrelevant”? — Rob, Miami, FL.

Hey, you’re right. It sure should. And life would be simpler if it did, because then we’d be using a language that builds all its words by snapping bits together, like building them out of Lego pieces. You snap a negative bit (im-, un-, non-, dis-, etc.) on the front of a word, and bingo, you’ve got its opposite. The English language actually has many words that work that way, “relevant” and “irrelevant” being a good example; “irrelevant” means simply “not relevant.” But there are many other cases where what seems to be a negative prefix (the “dis” in “disgruntled,” for instance) is actually playing a completely different role. In “disgruntled,” for instance, the “dis” in this case means “thoroughly.” So a “disgruntled” worker is extremely “gruntled,” an archaic term meaning “moved to grunting,” i.e., angry and dissatisfied.

The case of “pertinent” and “impertinent” illustrates yet another pitfall of the “Lego” school of etymology: where the prefix signaling negation (“im-“) does just what we expect it to by making “impertinent” mean “not pertinent,” but then the resulting “impertinent” wanders off and ends up meaning a whole lot more than simply “not relevant.”

“Pertinent” first appeared in Middle English, around 1390 in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, drawn from Anglo-Norman and Old French roots ultimately traceable to the Latin “pertinere” (“to be appropriate, suitable, relevant”). That was the original meaning of “pertinent” in English, and, apart from a legal sense of the word meaning “something belonging to an estate,” that’s pretty much the way we use “pertinent” today.

“Impertinent” also appeared in the late 14th century, based on the Latin “impertinens,” from “pertinens” (“belonging, relevant”) plus the negative prefix “im-” (a form of the more familiar “in-“). Its initial meaning in English was, predictably, “not belonging or relevant to” or “irrelevant.” But “impertinent” quickly broadened its meaning to encompass “not appropriate to the circumstances” (“Many ignorant practicioners … [have endeavored] to cure this infirmitie with many impertinent medicines.” 1583). By the 17th century, “impertinent” was being used to mean “irrational,” “absurd,” “trivial” and just plain “silly” (“For my part, I think a Woman’s Heart is the most impertinent part of the whole Body.” 1706).

Applied to specific people and their actions and attitudes, “impertinent” came to mean “meddling in things beyond their expertise or social station,” “intrusive or rude,” “showing lack of respect or proper manners,” and “behaving in a rude and insolent manner” (“He thought the stranger’s tone rather impertinent.” 1847). This is the sense most commonly heard today.