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Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. 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.

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May 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Whaddaya mean May? I distinctly said to wake me in April. This is an outrage.

But wait! Look over there! A kitty! Apparently reading Slashdot. Odd. Anyhoo, this is Marley, one of the famous Garage Kittens from about eight years ago, now all growed up and permanently ensconced on my desk. Seriously. All the other cats wander around the house, find new favorite spots, look out the window, chase mice in the kitchen, but not Marley. Marley has a job: sitting on my desk, and he takes it very, very seriously. Marley never moves. Marley is bolted to my desk.

Marley on the desk.

Actually, Marley does sometimes wander off to eat, repel invaders, and so forth, and sometimes Marley will be standing on the couch or a table when he senses that I am about to walk past, headed for the desk. Marley waits until the last possible moment and then quickly leaps toward the desk so that he sails across my path, clearing me by mere inches. Actually, that’s on a good day. On a bad day, he either slams into my arm or misjudges the distance and lands on the floor.

Marley, incidentally, is discouraged from going out in the hall because he has a record of attempting to leap from the hall table to the banister above the stairwell and overshooting the mark. Marley apparently cannot fly, and is very lucky the stairs are thickly carpeted.

But mostly Marley just sits on my desk. Staring at me. For hours at a time. Staring at my face. Sitting or lying next to the keyboard, staring at my face without blinking or moving a muscle. I know he does this because he likes me (at least I hope that’s it). Occasionally he’ll make his signature noise, which is the sort of chirping trill usually associated with songbirds. (Marley can also say one word — “Hi” –  very clearly. This cat ain’t normal.) Every so often he’ll reach out verrrry slowly and tap me on the nose if he senses I’m not paying attention. Apparently I’m supposed to stare at him all day, too. If I finally can’t take it anymore and stand up and gently carry Marley over to the nice soft couch where the other kitties snooze, he flies back to his spot on the desk before I get back to my chair. I sit down and there he is, staring at me, now with a hurt expression on his kitty-cat face. Then I have to watch a half-hour of Maru videos with him to cheer him up. Marley loves Maru. He’s also the only cat I’ve known who really enjoys watching TV; he’s endlessly fascinated by Mister Ed.

Marley is not a small cat, and I’m always surprised by how heavy he is, a fact that suddenly became important about two weeks ago. I have a smaller writing desk behind my big desk, where I sometimes type on my laptop. I’ve been dragging this little desk around since 1969, so it has considerable sentimental value. But its real attraction lately has been that if I’m typing on it with my laptop, there’s no room for Marley. He has to stay on the big desk behind me. This understandably frustrates him, and he occasionally leans over and taps me on the shoulder to get me to turn around and pet him a little.

So one evening two weeks ago, I’m typing away at my little desk when Marley realizes he’s been patient long enough and decides to leap from the big desk to the little one, apparently planning to land in my coffee cup. Unfortunately, I picked the exact moment of Marley’s takeoff to swivel in my chair towards the big desk, and  Marley hit the side of my head going full tilt. He must have had a good bit of momentum, because I felt like I’d been beaned with a fur-covered bowling ball. Wow.

Continue reading this post » » »

Dirty Pool

And they never buy the house with clothes in the closet.

Dear Word Detective: I remember hearing people say that such and such behavior seems like “bad pool”– meaning that it seemed underhanded or sneaky. Yet I find very few examples of the phrase on a Google search, and no discussions about the origin or meaning of the phrase. Is it even a real expression, or did I just mishear something? And if it is for real, why is it so rare? And where did it come from? Thanks for any info you can provide! — David A.

Whoa. You and me both, dude. I’ve just spent about ten minutes staring at your question and racking my brain about “bad pool.” I thought it sounded familiar, and I instinctively knew what it means, but I couldn’t remember ever actually hearing the phrase. It’s a creepy sort of feeling, as if someone in your family just referred to a sibling you never knew you had. The worst part was that this sort of thing has happened before. About 15 years ago, in answering a reader’s question, I convinced myself that the verb “stinch,” meaning “to be cheap,” not only existed, but that I had actually used it as a child. It doesn’t, and I didn’t. I was, in my garbled memory,  apparently combining “stint” (meaning “to cut short or restrict”) with “stingy.”

In this case, the phrase you are thinking of (and which I was temporarily unable to retrieve  from the sticky sludge of my mind) is not “bad pool,” but “dirty pool.” You may indeed have heard “bad pool” at some point, but “dirty pool” is definitely the common form of the phrase. Yup, “dirty pool,” and there’s no need to take away my car keys just yet.

The “pool” in the phrase “dirty pool” is not a puddle of unsanitary water, but the game of pool, played with cues and balls on a rectangular table with raised, cushioned edges. “Pool” takes its name from the Old French “poule,” and was originally a card game (with a “pool” of stakes in the middle of the table). “Poule” is also French for “hen,” and the theory is that if you trace “pool” even further back, you’ll find a Medieval game that consisted of throwing things at a chicken. Seriously.

By the way, for you HGTV “House Hunters” fans, if the home buyers inspect a house containing a pool table, that’s the one they’ll finally “pick” (they’ve actually already bought it). The same table will appear in the “after” shots, often accompanied by a little fable about how they bought it from the previous homeowners. Now turn off the TV and go play outside.

The “dirty” in “dirty pool” is the adjective used in its sense of “morally unclean,” as in such  now-antiquated phrases as “dirty movie.” In the mid-18th century “dirty” first appeared in the sense of “earned by dishonest or despicable means,” and by the early 20th century, “to do the dirty” meant “to play an underhanded trick” (“The Germans have been ‘doing the dirty’ on us by donning khaki and kilts to approach our trenches,” 1914). “Dirty trick” employs the same “sneaky, underhanded” sense of “dirty.”

So “dirty pool” refers to a game of pool, and by extension nearly any endeavor, conducted in a dishonest, dishonorable fashion, especially by lying, cheating or exploiting an unfair advantage. “Dirty pool” first appeared as an idiom meaning “unfair tactics” in Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel The Cane Mutiny (“I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court”), and remains widely in use today. The phrase carries a strong connotation of disapproval, i.e., the tactic being described as “dirty pool” would be beneath the dignity of a decent person (“If Russia badly needs food to replace crops ruined by the nuclear plant accident, should the U.S. use its surplus food as a weapon? … No. That would be dirty pool,” 1986).

Grog

It’s all in the weave.

Dear Word Detective:  When making concrete, one adds aggregate to create a stronger final product. Similarly, “grog” is added to clay to strengthen it. “Grog” is fired clay that’s been crushed into a powder. When added to clay, the resulting matrix is stronger than pure clay alone.    This meaning of “grog” is found all over the place, but I am unable to find any info on its derivation/etymology and am hoping you can help. So why is “grog” called “grog”? — Tom.

That’s a very interesting question, although that is not always a good thing. In many cases, I’ve found that the more interesting a question is, the harder it is to find an answer. In this case, I had begun to despair of coming up with a plausible answer, when I had one of those all-too-rare Eureka! moments when the fog lifted and I knew I had the probable answer. I had been presuming that the connection between “grog” the drink and “grog” in pottery-making, if it existed at all, was very tenuous. But it’s actually quite solid, if a bit roundabout.

We use “grog” today as a colloquial (usually jocular) term for any strong alcoholic drink (“The man was always on the grog, ‘n your Dad gave them the sack.” 1955), but “grog” began as the name for a very specific beverage. In 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy came to believe that the daily rum ration (of one-half pint) served to sailors was having a deleterious effect on his men. He issued an order that from that day forward each day’s rum ration was to be diluted with a quart of water (presumably to blunt the effect of the rum). The sailors under his command were, predictably, less than thrilled, especially because the drinking water aboard ship was famously foul. Vernon’s mixture must have seemed a waste of good rum.

Vernon’s sailors had, not surprisingly, already come up with a nickname for their commander, which was “Old Grog,” referring to the distinctive heavy “grogram” coat he wore on deck in heavy weather. (“Grogram” is a thick fabric made from wool combined with silk or mohair and often stiffened with gum.) So it made sense to call Vernon’s diluted mixture of rum and water “grog.” The term “grog” eventually percolated from Royal Navy slang into general usage, broadened to mean any alcoholic drink, and eventually gave us the adjective “groggy” to describe the state of being fuzzy-minded as if from drinking.

“Grog” as a term for fired and pulverized clay added to pottery to strengthen it has no direct connection to “grog” the drink. It does, however, have an apparent connection to Admiral Vernon’s “grogram” coat. The root of “grogram” is the French “gros grain,” meaning “coarse or large grain,” referring to the “pebbled” texture of the thick cloth. The hard particles of “grog” added to pottery clay strengthen the finished product and can, depending on the mixture, give the surface a slightly gritty texture that resists cracking. (Wikipedia claims that this effect in pottery and sculpture is called “tooth” and that the “grog” also speeds drying of the clay.) I’d be willing to bet that the coarse texture — “gros grain” — of the pottery “grog” accounts for the origin of the term.