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May 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Spring is here, Spring is here, life is skittles and life is beer… Well, at least it seems to have stopped raining for the moment.

The vultures are back! I love the vultures. They nest every year in our old semi-dead hollow tree down by the road and spend their days soaring above the yard and the field across the road.  I counted nine of them wheeling above our side yard the other afternoon. They are truly awesome birds. You can go stand in the yard and they’ll swoop low over your head to say hi. At least I hope they’re saying hi and not just checking my pulse.

We acquired a flock of crows in our trees last year for the first time. That sounds like we paid for them, but they actually just appeared. I grew up with crows, and I didn’t realize until these showed up how much I had missed their caws. And in the early evening, I sit on the front porch and watch the bats zoom back and forth catching bugs. Bats are cool.

The downside of spring around here is the clouds of agricultural chemicals that envelop the house. We’re sandwiched between two enormous fields, each spanning hundreds of acres, where soybeans and corn are grown in alternate years. Because of the rain, the farmers are way behind schedule in their planting, and they’ve been spraying late into the night. Not fun. It’s a huge argument against country living.

Many thanks to our readers who have subscribed or otherwise contributed to our well-being lately. As I may have mentioned a few times, your support literally keeps this leaky little boat afloat. I know money is tight for most people, but, if you can swing four cents a day ($15/yr), you’ll be ensuring that we’re here when you run into someone who firmly maintains that the proper spelling of the phrase is “all tolled.” Think of us as an insurance policy on a small but important bit of your sanity. So please consider subscribing if you can, because (as I have lately discovered the hard way) there are many people out there who would like to but can’t.

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Blow Out

Yubba Dubba Duck!

Dear Word Detective: My wife was reading an ad and noticed that there was going to be a “Blow Out Sale,” which got her thinking, what is a “Blow Out Sale”? When did “blow out” become a term to mean “big” or “extravagant”? I, of course, pondered the question and thought of you. Do you have any clues? Should we go to the “Blow Out Light Bulb Sale”? — Rich Harrington.

Good question. I’d have answered it sooner, but I was recovering after the ruckus at MondoMegaStuff on Black Friday. I felt sorry for the poor schmucks guarding the doors when that crowd stepped on them, of course, but you don’t get … whatever it was I bought … by hanging back like a wuss. What did I buy, anyway? I must have bought something, right? Anyway, I’ll bet it’s awesome, and I just know it’s making me happy. And I’ll bet you don’t have one. Wuss.

I have no doubt that somewhere out there in Consumption Nation there’s a Blow Out Light Bulb Sale in progress, probably just a few feet from the big “Roll Back!” sign above the bowling balls. Personally, I can’t help thinking about the tires on our car when I hear “blow out,” which is not surprising because I’ve gone through life convinced that someday all four wheels would fall off while we’re tooling down the freeway. Hey, it happened to Fred Flintstone almost every week.

“Blow out” in the sense you noticed is a use of the noun “blow out” (also “blow-out” and “blowout”) as an adjective. The noun “blow-out” (the form preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) is based on the verb “to blow,” which came to us from Germanic roots via the Old English “blawan,” meaning generally “to move air, to kindle, to breathe.”

As you can imagine, a verb having to do with everything from starting a fire to simply breathing subsequently spawned dozens of subsidiary meanings, but the one that underlies the various senses of “blow-out” is that of “to expel air forcefully or explosively.” Thus the use of “blow-out” to mean “a catastrophic burst in a rubber tire,” the most notable corollary of which (if you’re lucky) is that your tire no longer holds air and you have to call the AAA. This sense of “blow-out” first appeared in print in 1908 and shows, sadly, no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon. The same sense of “explosive escape and failure” is found in “blow-out” in a number of mechanical contexts, lately most notably meaning “A rapid, uncontrolled uprush of fluid from an oil well.” This sense first appeared in 1916. When we say that a light bulb “blows out,” we’re figuratively using a sense of “to blow” dating back to the 14th century meaning “to extinguish (a flame) by a current of air.”

Interestingly, one of the earliest printed examples of “blow-out” comes from 1825, when it was used to mean “quarrel, disturbance, fight,” a sense now mostly obsolete, having been replaced by “blow up.”

At about the same time (1823), however, “blow-out” appeared with the far more congenial meaning of “A dinner, supper, or other entertainment for which an abundant supply of food and drink is provided or at which it is consumed” (OED) (“They had a grand blow-out, and … drank in the forecastle, a barrel of gin,” Two Years Before the Mast, Dana, 1840). The logic behind this use of “blow-out” is that of excess without limits, as if a richly-stocked pantry had been completely (and, metaphorically, explosively) emptied for one feast. This “blow-out” is very much still in use today, and appears to be the sense behind “blow-out sale,” an “event” offering a wealth of goodies at insanely low prices.

Two other, more modern, uses of “blow-out” are worth mentioning because the second may feed into “blow-out sale” a bit. In the 1920s, blow-out” appeared as US slang meaning “a total failure; a fiasco or debacle” (“I walk over … knowing full well what it’s like to be in his shoes, facing a financial blowout, gobsmacked by your own bovine stupidity,” 2004). But for every loser there is a winner, and by the 1930s, this “failure” sense had produced its opposite, the use of “blow-out” to mean a sweeping and dramatic victory, especially in sports or politics (“The Tigers … lost a total of seven games — four by blowouts and three by slim margins,” 1991). In a sports-obsessed nation like the US, I suspect that this “stunning victory” sense also lurks behind “blow-out sale.”

Art form / Snarky

I made it myself.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently at a party where a snarky guest remarked that our hostess “raised tacky to an art form.” I’m guessing that it is more correctly “a form of art,” but how did this expression come to mean something not very special? It seems like it should be exactly the opposite. (By the way, the snarky guest was bumped by someone with a full glass of red wine and left early, presumably to contemplate the consequences of trashing the hostess’s taste.) Now that I think about it, is there any history attached to “snarky”? — Lori Bates.

Ah yes, the loyal guest with the full wine glass, the polite alternative to the bouncer. And so much more civilized than those vulgar stun guns. On the other hand, the wine “accident” doesn’t have the salutary effect on the other guests that shouting “Guards, seize that man!” does. I’ve found that nothing boosts your guests’ opinion of your cooking and home decor like muffled screams from the cellar. Assuming they don’t all just bolt for their cars, they’ll be begging you for your deep-fried Twinkies recipe and praising your Beanie Babies diorama with gratifying alacrity and an almost religious fervor.

The use of “to raise [something] to art form” you describe is remarkably common but devilishly difficult to trace. A search of Google produces more than 16 million hits at the moment, and it seems that nearly anything can be lifted to the status of an art, at least rhetorically. So we have “video games,” “narcissism,” “complaining,” “power strips” (for a computer), “sausage,” “terrarium making,” “hypocrisy,” “window shopping” and simply “apartment living” all apparently boosted to parity with Mozart and Michaelangelo within the first two pages of Google hits.

“Art form” as a fixed phrase meaning, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “An established form taken by a work of art, as a novel, concerto, portrait, film, etc.” or “A medium of artistic expression,” dates back at least to the mid-19th century, and was probably an adaptation of the German “Kunstform,” meaning “skillful artistic form.” Most uses of the term at that time were simply literal; to call ballet or sculpture an “art form” is non-controversial. But as early as 1895 we can see the phrase used in its more modern sense of “something which is not thought of as art but is done so well in this instance that it approaches that status.” In this sense such non-artistic pursuits as diplomacy, neurosurgery, and skateboarding can be praised as having been “raised to an art form” by a talented individual. In nine cases out of ten such hyperbole is simply silly, but at least sincere.

The use of “raise to an art form” you describe the soon-to-be-sodden party guest using, however, is an entirely different phenomenon. It’s a sarcastic jibe not only condemning the object of ridicule but mocking the amount of skill, effort and elaboration implicitly involved in lofting a banal lapse in taste, judgment or competence into the stratosphere of epic awfulness. No one would ever mistake “Bob has raised inappropriate comments at dinner to an art form” or “Sally has raised eye shadow to an art form” for sincere compliments. Ironically, this sarcastic use of “raised to an art form” is itself many years past being a tired and “tacky” cliche.

“Snarky,” oddly enough, has nothing to do with the imaginary animal invented by Lewis Carroll in his 1876 “The Hunting of the Snark.” The verb “to snark” originally, in the late 19th century, meant “to snore or snort,” but soon took on the meaning of “to find fault with, to nag,” probably because snorting at something is rarely considered complimentary. Thus “snarky” appeared in the early 20th century with the meaning “irritable, short-tempered” or, in the common usage today, “impertinently or irreverently sarcastic and critical.”