Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks. (note: JavaScript must be turned on in your browser to view results.)


Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!




Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.


Archives 2007 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.


If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.






All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2020 Evan Morris & Kathy Wollard. 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.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds

October 2010 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Whoa. Instant October, Batman! One minute it’s 94 degrees and the grass is burned brown, the next it’s leaden skies, the rustle of leaves in the driveway, and time for pumpkin pie. Whoo-hoo. Autumn is really the only season I enjoy, though it makes me a bit sad because it makes me homesick for New England.

Hey, I keep meaning to let youse in on my latest kitchen tip. Last month I mentioned that I’ve lost much of the grip strength in my left hand. That makes it very difficult to open jars of stuff, especially spaghetti sauce and salsa, both of which are vital to my diet. The kitchenware stores sell all sorts of gizmos to help get jars open, but they all seem cumbersome and the one I bought a few years ago didn’t really work. The traditional method — of running the jar under hot water and tapping the lid with a knife — at best doesn’t work, and, at worst, may leave you picking glass fragments out of your tongue later in the evening. Then it dawned on me. All you have to do is put on rubber gloves, the kind you wash dishes with. Or even just one glove, on your good hand. Bingo. Effortless. Maybe you all knew this trick, but I came up with it all on my own and I think it’s very cool. Then again, “Easily Amused” is my middle name.


Ladycat, a lady cat.

Onward. This is Ladycat. Ladycat is the feral cat we took in last winter who had nearly frozen to death in our yard and who, upon being thawed, nearly bit my finger off when I tried to pet her. Ladycat has calmed down considerably since then, and lives a quiet life napping in her little pink bed in a clear space I made for her on the bookshelves in my office upstairs.

Ladycat’s name, by the way, has no significance apart from illustrating our complete burnout on inventing names for these critters. Kathy says that “Ladycat” sounds like something Tina Fey would come up with. I think the creative naming well ran dry about the time we settled on Little Girl Cat for one of the arrivals a few years ago. We just call her LGC now.

Now, the truth about cats is that all cats throw up from time to time, differing only in their personal style of delivering the bad news. For instance, Marley (who also lives in my office) will give several warning yowls (mmmwrow mmmwrow mmmwrow wrowwrow) before he vomits, but this does me little good because he invariably then runs out into the hall, jumps up on the banister, and pukes down the stairwell onto the coats hanging on the rack in the front hall. I have reason to believe that Marley has actually won awards from the other cats for this behavior.

Ladycat, however, almost never vomits. I’d say “never,” but I did see her in action the other day, and it explains why I would have said “never” until then. Like Marley, she gave a few “I’m gonna be sick” signals that caught my attention. But what she did next was quite remarkable. As the moment drew near, she trotted over to the covered litter pan in the corner, put her paws up on the entrance, leaned her head into the opening, and upchucked, quite decorously, into the kitty litter pan. Then she climbed in and covered the mess, climbed out, jumped back up on her shelf, and went back to sleep. I swear this actually happened, and if someone has a cheap, practical way to clone cats, I think I may have stumbled onto a gold mine.

Meanwhile, cat food isn’t free, so please subscribe.

Bonus cats-in-love picture:

Little Girl Cat and Fuzzy-Wuzzy

Little Girl Cat and Fuzzy-Wuzzy

Little Girl Cat is totally in love with Fuzzy and follows him everywhere. If he wanders upstairs in the evening, she’ll come up the stairs a few minutes later making a little bereft sound. Fuzzy used to just tolerate her, but now she’s the only cat he’ll curl up with.

And now, on with the show….

Both ends against the middle, to play

Let’s you and him fight.

Dear Word Detective: How, exactly, does one “play both ends against the middle”?  Whence?  Wherefore?  Is it a reference to the children’s game “Monkey in the Middle”?  Is there a more sinister explanation?  It seems to make better sense if it’s the middle playing both ends against each other, but maybe they decided that was too cumbersome.  What’s going on? — Hannah Upchurch.

“Monkey in the Middle”?  You’ll have to forgive me — I am not familiar with your Earth games.  Is that anything like “Transform Boltar into a Werkle”?  We used to play that all the time on, um, Connecticut.  Ah, here we go.  This “Wikipedia” must be the wisest person on your planet.  He says that “Monkey in the Middle” is what you people also call “Keep Away,” a larval sport the object of which is to throw an object back and forth while someone positioned between the players attempts to grab it.

OK, game time over.  To “play both ends against the middle” means to maneuver two opponents into a conflict against each other in order to benefit yourself, or to pretend to favor both opponents as a way of being sure of ending up on the winning side.  This behavior will seem very familiar to any student of politics, where a candidate’s pledge of fealty to opposing (and often mutually exclusive) sides of a debate is regarded as “realistic” and “post-partisan.”   It’s also the principle behind the not-uncommon practice of a party surreptitiously supporting an extremist candidate on the other side in order to draw votes away from a more mainstream opponent.

“Playing both ends against the middle” may resemble “Monkey in the middle” in its arrangement of players, but the idiom actually comes from the card game called “faro,” which was an extremely popular form of gambling in 19th century America.  (The name “faro” is a simplified form of “Pharaoh,” a king of ancient Egypt.  It’s thought that the decks of cards used in 17th century France, where the game first appeared, were decorated with a picture of a Pharaoh.)

Card games more sophisticated than “Fish” are beyond my ken, but according to the excellent explanation of “playing both sides against the middle” in Christine Ammer’s dictionary of idioms “Have a Nice Day — No Problem,” faro is, when fairly played, a very fair and honest game.  Unfortunately, faro games can be, and often were, rigged by shaving the edges of cards to make their location in the deck easily identifiable to crooked dealers and players.  Apparently the ends of cards were frequently shaved in a concave or convex fashion, and this technique was called “both ends against the middle,” which became “playing both ends against the middle.”

“Playing both ends against the middle” probably became popular as a phrase at least in part because the idiom “to play one person against another” had been in use since the 16th century (“They could play one Party of Protestants against another,” 1643).  But the popularity of faro in the US gave a boost to “play both ends against the middle,” and the phrase was being used in a non-card sense by the late 19th century (“He must in gamblers’ parlance, ‘play both ends against the middle’,” 1887).


Steady there, cowboy.

Dear Word Detective:  “Chicago, Chicago … that toddlin’ town.”  What does “toddlin'” mean?  Do people “toddle” because they:  (a) imbibe excessively, (b) are buffeted by so much wind?  (It’s amusing that “Windy City” refers to blustering politicians) or (c) are wearing so much clothing to protect them from the weather that they toddle about, much like the little brother encased in a snowsuit who cannot put his arms down in “The Christmas Story”? — EC Goller.

Hey, I had a snowsuit like that.  But it didn’t bother me as much as the little halter-and-leash combo my parents made me wear when we went somewhere where there were crowds.  In retrospect, I understand why they did it.  I was a small, vague child, and easily misplaced.  But I do think the muzzle was overkill.

Onward.  You mention “Windy City” as the nickname of Chicago, which requires me to explain that the term was not, as is often said, coined by New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana during the 1890s tussle between New York and Chicago for the right to hold the 1893 Columbian Exposition (the World’s Fair held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America).  Etymologist Barry Popik ( has found uses of “Windy City” in print as early as 1856, and it was frequently deployed in inter-city rivalry between Chicago and Cincinnati in the 1860s and 70s, in which “windy” had the dual meaning of “literally windy” and being “windy” with bombast and empty boasts.

The song “Chicago,” which begins “Chicago, Chicago, That toddling town, Chicago, Chicago, I’ll show you around,” was written in 1922 by Fred Fisher and has been recorded by numerous artists, the versions by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett being especially popular.

I would suggest a trip to Chicago to ask the natives what “toddling” in the song means, but they seem to have spent the past ninety-plus years trying, with no success, to figure that out.  The verb “to toddle” dates back to around 1600 and initially, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, meant “to walk or run with short unsteady steps, as a child just beginning to walk [or] an aged or invalid person.”  That’s obviously the sense that gave us “toddler” meaning “a very young child.”  By the early 18th century, however, “toddle” was also being used to mean “to walk in a leisurely fashion, to stroll.”  The roots of “toddle,” incidentally, are unknown, but it may be related to “totter,” which would fit well with that first meaning.

As to whether “toddling” in the song refers to walking with difficulty (presumably because of inebriation, though wind might be a contributing factor), or to strolling along in a leisurely fashion, perhaps on the shore of Lake Michigan, both possibilities are arguable.  But I’m afraid that the most likely answer is “neither.”  “Toddling town” was probably picked simply because it’s nicely alliterative, always a good idea for the first line of nearly anything.  Having begun his song with “Chicago, Chicago” and wanting to follow up with “That T-something-something Town,” Fred Fisher’s choices were, after all, limited.  “Tootling”?  Too creepy. “Truculent”?  Bad for business.  “Terrific”?  Too needy, and it doesn’t scan properly.  “Tedious”?  Only if he longed for cement overshoes.  All things considered, “toddling” seems almost inevitable.