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November 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


OK, it’s not November. November was not a good month. October wasn’t so hot, either. There will be a December issue as soon as I can muster one.

We went to a doctor’s appt. in Columbus, 40 miles away, in late October and somebody kicked in our back door and robbed us. We don’t have much of anything anyone would want, but these creeps went straight upstairs to the bedroom and took some heirloom jewelry (grandparents’ rings, etc.) that they found in a drawer. Unfortunately, what they took was not only emotionally important to Kathy, the only direct, physical mementos of her parents and grandparents, but also our last-resort, end-of-the-world nest egg. Now we’ve really got nuttin’.

It was a weirdly fastidious robbery; they closed the drawers and some boxes on the dresser, and closed the back door on their way out. If they hadn’t cracked the door frame and part of the wall next to it, we might not have noticed the robbery for days. The Sheriff’s Deputy who came to investigate suggested that, based on the method, it might be the work of either a family member or a neighbor, but we lack an eligible relative and it has since become apparent that our robbery was just one of about a dozen identical crimes that have swept our general are in recent weeks. What we need now is an alarm system that plays the sound of somebody racking a 12-gauge pump shotgun.

Brownie & Fifi the Cat

What happened next is hard to write about, so I’m going to keep this short. Our beloved dog Brownie died the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, apparently of a seizure of some kind as she slept on the living room floor. Brownie was 14-1/2 years old. She was our best friend, the most wonderful, loving, smart, sweet dog I have ever known. We got her as a foundling puppy soon after we moved to Ohio from NYC, and we were lucky to have spent all day every day with her ever since. Apart from some arthritis, she had no known health problems; I had taken her for a walk earlier in the day around the yard, and she seemed fine. I’m glad she wasn’t sick, I’m glad she could still play ball with me in the living room the night before she died, I’m glad she knew how much we loved her, but we miss her terribly. She was the third person in the house, and it seems impossible that she isn’t sleeping downstairs right now.

Onward. Because this seems to be how the universe works, I greeted Thanksgiving Day by coming down with either the worst case of food poisoning possible or, more likely, a killer case of some Norovirus. Whatever it was meant a solid week of Exorcist-level projectile vomiting and inability to eat that left me too weak to walk and severely dehydrated. Multiple Sclerosis acts as a force multiplier in such things, so everything hurt like hell and my eyes went completely blurry, making it impossible to read. I seem to be on the mend now, but I lost about ten pounds and I still feel yucky and my eyes are still iffy. Thanksgiving, of course, simply did not happen.

Have I mentioned that today is my birthday? Oh, yay.

But the Holidays are here, and Subscriptions make lovely holiday gifts! So please consider giving a few. And random acts of contribution are, of course, always appreciated.

And now, on with the show….



Cheerfully rotten.

Dear Word Detective:  An acquaintance of mine related that he had provided “moral support” to a friend in need. I like to think I am a person of sound morals, but it seems to me that “morale support” would be a more accurate description of the act. So how about it? Are “moral” and “morale” related?  And if not, how in the world did the phrase “moral support” come about? — Steve Ford.

I can has world domination?

Morals? How quaint, Mister Bond. Here I sit behind my vast desk, petting my peerless and remarkably obese white cat, and you speak as if these “morals” of yours will stop me in my ruthless march to control the world’s supply of adjectives.

Speaking of obese white cats, I read an article the other day about the tiny camera-equipped drones, controlled with an iPhone app, that are now available for a few hundred bucks to regular (if somewhat pallid and weedy) buyers. A perceptive commenter pointed out that in recent years, thanks to such technology, the cost of being a super-villain has fallen dramatically, meaning that we should expect a bumper crop of suburban Ernst Blofelds vamping on their neighbors. I guess I’d better hurry up and finish my death ray.

“Moral” and “morale” are not only related in origin and usage, but so intertwined that they come very close to being the same word. Apart from that silent “e” at the end of “morale,” the most noticeable difference between the two words is that the stress is on the first syllable in “moral” and on the second in “morale.”

It all began with the Latin word “mor” or “mos,” which meant “custom or habit.” The plural of “mor” was “mores” (pronounced “more-ays,” like multiple nasty eels), which was adopted into English in the late 19th century to mean “the shared customs, attitudes and manners of a community.” The use of “mores” seems to have dropped off in recent years, but back in the 1960s, when half the US was foaming at the mouth over the “immorality” of hippies, you could always turn on PBS and find a serious pseudo-sociological discussion about the “change in American social mores” that all those libidinous potheads represented.

But by the time “mores” came into vogue in the 1890s, the adjective “moral” had already been in common use in English for more than 400 years. “Moral” as an adjective ultimately came from that same Latin “mor,” but English adopted it from the French “moral,” meaning “concerned with questions of right, wrong and ethics” or, of a person, “able to act in a right or wrong way.”

Although in its basic sense the adjective “moral” merely posed the question of a thing or action being right or wrong, in practice the assumption soon became that a “moral” person, book, act, etc., reflected the “good side” of human nature and, optimally, inculcated those values in people, such as children, prone to wander off the path of righteousness if not watched closely. There are some modern vestiges of the original “value-free” use of moral; “moral support” (1852) means support of the mental and emotional kind, rather than actually jumping into the fray, and a “moral victory” (1896) is a defeat in which the loser can be proud of sticking to a moral principle (which may not necessarily be one perceived by others as “morally good”).

“Moral” as a noun appeared in English in the 14th century meaning “a moral principle,” but today it’s almost always used in the plural “morals” to mean a person’s moral beliefs or behavior. Another sense still in use today is that of “a moral lesson or teaching,” the “moral of the story” in many old children’s tales.

The noun “morale” appeared in English in the late 18th century, also drawn from French, where “morale” is the feminine form of the adjective “moral.” It was initially used as a synonym of “moral” in English, but this seems to have been the result of some confusion about the finer shadings of meaning in French, where “morale” has more to do with a person’s emotional state than moral rectitude. Eventually “morale” in English came to mean almost exclusively the state of confidence, optimism, hope or simply contentment in a person or group (“To improve the morale of the entire mercantile community,” 1866). So now we have “morale boosting” (1960), “morale building” (1943) and “morale raising” (1946) to make us feel better about whatever pickle we find ourselves in at the moment.

You could make a case that “moral support” should actually be “morale support,” but I see two problems. One is that “moral support” involves matters of principle, not just the subjective confidence or contentment of the person you’re supporting. I’ve known some utterly unprincipled jerks who seemed to have excellent morale. The real problem, however, is that it’s just too late to change it.

Third degree

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Dear Word Detective:  I am reading an interesting book about a murder in New York City in 1897. The book is called “The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.” I’m only just beginning, and I don’t know whodunnit yet, so don’t tell me! My question is about this: One of the policemen involved is a Captain Stephen O’Brien. There is some discussion about his effectiveness at interrogating and the interrogation rooms, which are appropriately sound-proofed so that the Captain can give suspects the “third degree.” According to the author, this is a phrase that Captain O’Brien’s predecessor, Inspector Thomas Barnes, coined. Any way to verify that? — Jenny Nunemacher.

Ah yes, the Gilded Age, that late 19th century era of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, Mellons, Astors and their rarefied ilk, their opulent mansions, yachts, sweatshops, tenements, corrupt politicians and lurid scandals. How exotic I wish that all sounded today. Incidentally, the term “Gilded Age” was actually coined by Mark Twain and C.D. Warner as the title of their novel, published in 1873.

I can’t tell you whodunnit, and wouldn’t if I did, but apparently Paul Collins, the author of that book, is far from the first to write about that singularly grisly murder (A.J. Liebling titled his 1955 New Yorker piece about the crime “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman”). It was also the occasion of an important early battle in the war between the Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper empires.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the sense of “third degree” in your question as “An interrogation of a prisoner by the police involving the infliction of mental or physical suffering in order to bring about a confession or to secure information.” The phrase is often used in an extended sense to mean a less intense but still thorough sort of questioning, such as by a parent of a tardy child or an irate boss of a feckless underling. In the “police interrogation” sense, the first printed use of “third degree” found so far is from 1895 (“From time to time a prisoner … claims to have had the Third Degree administered to him,” 1900). But an 1880 Harvard Lampoon story refers to “a personal chastisement in the third degree,” apparently meaning a severe scolding, so the phrase may be a good deal older.

Use of “third degree” to mean a third step in severity of something dates back to the 16th century, and a “third degree burn” has been the most serious sort since the mid-19th century. Oddly enough, given that “third degree” in the police sense is definitely a US coinage, in US criminal law a crime “in the third degree” is the least serious grade of that crime.

The exact origin of “third degree” in the “brutal interrogation” sense is, predictably, unknown. I’m not sure on what evidence Paul Collins bases his statement that Inspector Thomas Barnes coined it, but I strongly suspect that he’s wrong. It’s not uncommon for people to claim to have invented words and phrases (or to know who did) and for writers decades or centuries later to take those claims as being true simply because they were made at about the same time that the phrase first appeared. But it’s also not absolutely impossible that Inspector Barnes either invented or popularized the term in that sense. It does seem to have originated in New York City.

More likely, however, is that “the third degree” in the “beat with a rubber hose” sense was adopted by analogy to another use, perhaps the burn classification, which certainly would have been familiar to police officers.

A more intriguing (and I think likely) possibility is that “third degree” was originally a reference to the Third Degree in Freemasonry, the level of Master Mason, which is only reached after undergoing a rigorous examination and questioning by elder Masons. Freemasonry was more popular in the 19th century US than it is today, and the “Third Degree” of Masonry, which was established around 1725, would have been familiar to many police officers in the 1890s. Since the Masonic interrogation ceremony was undoubtedly intellectually difficult but far from the “third degree” administered by the police, the first use of the term by police may well have been, in fact, as a jocular euphemism.