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At the corner of Easy Street and Peasy Parkway.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the saying “hunky-dory” come from? — Di.

That’s a good question, but I have another: where did “hunky-dory” go? I know I haven’t heard anyone use the term in quite a long time, and most occurrences of it online at the moment seem to refer to David Bowie’s 1971 album by that name. “Hunky-dory,” meaning “fine,” “satisfactory” or “all right” (“My boss says it’s OK to take Friday off, so everything is hunky-dory”), is a handy phrase. It may be a bit worn around the edges, having made its debut in US slang back in the 1860s, but I think we should all pledge to use it at least once a week. It certainly beats the leaden and boring “no problem.”

Although we’ve been assuring each other that things are “hunky-dory” for more than 150 years, the origins of the term remain mysterious. As usual in such cases, there have been no shortage of theories. The most durable and popular theory traces “hunky-dory” to a street called “Honcho-dori” in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors on shore leave found bars, nightclubs and the other sorts of things sailors on shore leave go looking for. So popular and relaxing was a visit to “Honcho-dori,” goes the theory, that American sailors began to use the Anglicized form “hunky-dory” to mean “all good” or “very satisfactory.”

There is indeed a street in Yokohama called “Honcho-dori” (not surprisingly, since it translates roughly to “Main Street”), but “hunky-dory” was almost certainly not born in Yokohama. The “hunky” part is probably drawn from “hunk,” an old New York City children’s term for “home” or “goal” in a game. This “hunk” (unrelated to “hunk” meaning “piece”) came from the Dutch word “honk” meaning “goal or home” in a game. (New York City was originally the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, of course, and many Dutch terms and place names remain in use.)

“Hunk” meaning “home” in children’s games eventually produced an adjective, “hunky,” used more broadly to mean “in good shape; safe and sound” (“I’ll be all hunky. Nurse Dainton tends me like I was made of glass.” 1926).

Of course, this still leaves the question of where the “dory” part of “hunky-dory” came from, and there we have a real mystery. It’s possible, since “Honcho-dori” was indeed known to US sailors on leave in Japan, that the “dori” was grafted onto the established adjective “hunky” in a sort of pun. But it’s probably more likely that “dory” arose as what linguists call a “reduplication,” the repetition of part of a word in modified form (as in “okey-dokey,” “pitter-patter,” “knick-knack,” etc.). Such elements in reduplications are usually meaningless, just added for effect, so we’re unlikely to find a real “backstory” to “dory.”


I thought “Friar” was just a really weird first name.

Dear Word Detective: I finally looked up “oblate.” For some time I had realized it has two meanings — the adjective describing a spheroid flattened at the poles, and the noun meaning a person dedicated to religious life. Can there be a connection between these two? I can only think of the pudgy Friar Tuck — an oblate Friar. — Charlie Nunzio.

Good question, although it led me to spend an exciting 45 minutes just now doubting my own sanity. Pondering Friar Tuck, I remembered watching a Robin Hood TV series as a child, but the Wikipedia article on the Robin Hood legend makes no mention of such a show. Turns out that the series was made in England and shown in the US from 1955-59. I saw it quite a bit later in reruns. In the show, Friar Tuck was depicted, as he has been since the Robin Hood legend arose in the Middle Ages, as a very plump defrocked monk with a fondness for food but also excellent fighting skills, making him a valuable member of Robin’s merry band.

There is a connection between “oblate” in the “flattened sphere” sense and “oblate” in the religious sense, but you have to go pretty far back in the history of the word to find it, the connection is very tenuous, and it has little to do with the modern uses of the word. In other words, Friar Tuck’s rotundity had no direct connection to his occupation.

The religious sense of “oblate” comes from its use in the Roman Catholic Church since the 17th century. An “oblate” is a person devoted to religious work, perhaps even a member of a monastic order, but one who is not bound by formal vows. “Oblates” observe some, perhaps most, of the rules of an order or other church organization but remain part of the secular world. “Oblate” in this sense can be either a noun or an adjective. The root of this “oblate” is the Latin “oblatus,” the past participle of “offerre,” literally “to bring forward.” That “offerre” was also the source of our English “offer,” the original sense of which was “to offer up as an act of religious devotion.” The “oblate” is thus one who “offers” devotion, prayer and good works to the church. An “oblation” is an offering to a church or deity as a symbol of pious devotion.

That all makes perfect sense; a religious adherent offering spiritual devotion and/or material wealth to the church is known by the Latin word for “offerer.” Using the same word to mean “a spheroid flattened at the poles” (picture a basketball being sat on by a large child) takes a bit of explaining. The secret here is that the two “oblates” are not really the same word.

To understand this “oblate,” we start at the suspiciously similar word “prolate,” taken from the Latin “prolatus,” past participle of “proferre,” meaning “to produce, prolong, extend” (“pro,” forward, plus “ferre,” to bring). The sense of “prolate” meaning “extend” was used in the early 17th century by mathematicians and astronomers to describe a sphere or ellipsis lengthened on the polar axis, i.e., stretched a bit at top and bottom (“A few stars now had pierced the blue, and in the east there shone brightly a prolate moon.” H.G. Wells, 1908).

But this use meant that another term was needed to describe spheres, etc., stretched sideways. So “ob,” a Latin prefix meaning vaguely “in the direction of” was substituted for “pro,” and bingo, another, separately created “oblate,” having nothing to do with religion or coins in the collection plate. So Friar Tuck has nothing much to do with “oblate,” but his impressive belt size may serve as a good way to remember the difference between “prolate” and “oblate.”

The vapors

Breathe deep the gathering gloom.

Dear Word Detective: I heard on the radio the other day that cannabis is increasingly partaken in the form of vapor. The report said that vapor pens can deliver far more THC than one usually ingests, leading to very powerful highs, which might well be mistaken for having “the vapors,” to which 19th century women seemed to have a habit of succumbing. How did “vapor” come to be associated with feeling faint? — Steve Ford.

Vapor pens? Wow. I’m really out of touch. I’m presuming that we’re talking about something similar to the e-cigarettes everyone is in an uproar over at the moment. Kinda an electric joint, right? I saw a news report the other day about people inhaling vaporized vodka, or something. This bigger-faster-stronger trend seems like a bad idea to me. The saving grace and safety net of most popular forms of intoxication has been their natural limiting factors. Drink too much, you fall down and can’t drink any more, at least for a while. Potheads also lose interest at some point and take to yammering about clouds, as I recall.

“The vapors” as “a thing” (as we now apparently call objects of popular interest) was really more common in the 18th century than the 19th, inspired by the somewhat primitive understanding of human anatomy of that time.

“Vapor” in the most general sense means a substance in gaseous form, or one vaporized or suspended in air (such as smoke, or water in the form of steam or fog). The word “vapor” itself comes to us, via Old French, from the Latin word “vapor,” meaning “steam or heat.” The source of the Latin “vapor” is, sadly, a mystery. “Vapor” in the literal sense of “steam, fog, mist” first appeared in English in the 14th century, and was also used figuratively to mean something insubstantial or worthless (“I am at this present very sick of my little vapour of fame.” Horace Walpole, 1781).

So far, so good. Vapor is mist, fog, yadda yadda, right? But now things get weird. In the 15th century a theory arose that internal organs of the human body were prone to emit certain “vapors” which were very injurious to the health of the person. Such “vapors” were thought to be located mainly in the stomach (probably because stomach and intestinal gas is common), but could arise in other organs and permeate one’s torso, wreaking all sorts of havoc with one’s temperament and well-being.

By the mid-17th century, people were speaking of “the vapors,” a condition resulting from such bilious fumes bubbling in one’s body, the symptoms of which were depression, nervous and delusional excitement, exhaustion, aches, pains and a general feeling of being run down and unwell (“These Things fill’d my Head with new Imaginations, and gave me the Vapours again, to the highest Degree.” Daniel Defoe, 1719).

Medical science, of course, eventually discredited the notion of poisonous vapors in one’s spleen, and by the 19th century came up with an entirely new disorder to explain all the same symptoms called “neurasthenia,” thought to be caused by overworked nerves. “Neurasthenia” (“neuro” plus “asthenia,” from the Greek for “without strength”) was a popular psychiatric diagnosis until the mid-20th century, but today most of those symptoms are ascribed to stress and depression.