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.


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 2006 – 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 © 1995-2011 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.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


TWD RSS feeds


I wuz framed,

Dear Word Detective: There is a British expression for “setting someone up” to take the blame for some offense, which is “stitching them up.” I read your explanation for “grassing up” someone, which is the equivalent of snitching. But “stitching” is more like “framing” someone. I look forward to learning the origin(s) of this expression. — Scott Jones, Austin, Texas (really from Philadelphia).

Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it made quite an impression. My primary takeaway, as the biz folk say, was that many of your hometown’s motorists have serious perceptual impairments. Some of them seemed to be trying to drive sideways.

I suppose, being the responsible sort, that I should recap my explanation of “grassing,” that British colloquialism for “snitching,” specifically acting as an informer for the police. While one might imagine a connection to the very old expression “snake in the grass” (meaning “a sly betrayer”), this “grass” is actually short for “grasshopper,” rhyming slang for “copper” (i.e., a cop), and “grassing” means working for (or actually being) the police. (Rhyming slang, common among the working classes of Britain and Australia, uses a system of rhymes to disguise the words actually meant.)

To “stitch” originally meant “to stab or pierce,” based on the noun “stitch,” which developed from the same Germanic roots that gave us “stick.” A “stitch” could be a wound (as from being poked with something sharp), a sharp pain in the side, a fit of laughing (e.g., “in stitches,” probably from the pain of prolonged laughing) or each loop left by a threaded needle as it passes through fabric, etc. “To stitch,” similarly, means “to fasten together with stitches,” as in making clothes from fabric or shoes from leather, or closing a wound by using surgical stitching. The phrase “to stitch up,” first appearing in the late 16th century, initially meant “to put together by sewing,” with the implication that the work is done in a hurry. Subsequent senses also carried overtones of emergency repair work or a “rush job,” as well as of restricting, restraining or closing off something (“I am sure he would rather have stitch’d up his lips, or bit off his tongue, than have spoken a word…” 1712).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stitch-up” in the sense you mention as “An act of manipulating a situation in order to reach a desired outcome, especially by dishonorable or dishonest means, such as abuse of a position of power or influence; a conspiracy or plot, especially to incriminate a person on false evidence.” In common use since at least 1980, “stitch-up” (it’s usually hyphenated) is a bit broader than a “frame-up,” which is usually purely a question of false evidence and/or malicious prosecution. A “stitch-up” can also be a corrupt arrangement that thwarts justice but isn’t necessarily illegal (“[He] accused the Government of a ‘cynical stitch-up with BP management’ over the job losses and asset sales.” 1989).

Heard it through the grapevine

Something to talk about.

Dear Word Detective: My question is the origin of the phrase “heard it through the grapevine.” I’ve seen several different answers and would like to hear it from the source, meaning you. — Jack O’Hea.

The source? Me? No, grasshopper. I am merely a conduit for the wisdom of the world, and if I sometimes see further than others, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants and block their view.

I’m sure that by now most of us have the Marvin Gaye version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” his 1968 Motown hit, running through our heads, especially the dum dum dum dum dumdumdumdum intro. (Personally, I’m partial to The Platters’ “Workin’ My Way Back to You, Babe,” but whatever.) The relevance of that song to us is that it perfectly illustrates the meaning of the title; the singer hears that his girlfriend is planning to leave him, not from her own lips, but from rumors (“It took me by surprise I must say/When I found out yesterday/Don’t you know that I heard it through the grapevine/Not much longer would you be mine”).

In a literal sense, a “grapevine” is, of course, the twisting, ropy vine on which grapes grow. The metaphorical “grapevine” by which news and rumors grow and propagate first appeared in popular speech in the mid-1800s during the US Civil War. “Grapevine” in this sense is actually a shortening of the original term “grapevine telegraph,” a sardonic nod to the actual electric telegraph, which was then becoming established across the US as an important means of communication. With the coming of the Civil War also came the rupturing of conventional communications channels, and the “grapevine telegraph,” especially among slaves in the South, became an important source of information to residents of the area (as well as intelligence of military importance to the Union forces). As Booker T. Washington noted in his book “Up from Slavery” (1901), “They kept themselves informed of events by what was called the ‘grape-vine telegraph.'”

Of course, since information passed on the “grapevine” was of dubious provenance when it began its journey and often modified or mangled en route (much as in the old child’s game “Telephone”), to call a bit of news “grapevine” was often to cast doubt on its veracity (“I’ll bet you a day’s ration of hardtack that it’s only ‘nother o’ those grapevines” 1887). But the utility of the “grapevine telegraph” during the war made it a enduring slang term for “information passed from an inside source,” at least a few steps above a mere rumor and quite possibly “the real deal.”

The “grapevine” is more important than ever in today’s internet-driven Kardashian-obsessed media landscape. Now any old schmuck with wi-fi can can ruin a career (often their own) or spawn a dubious social movement with a single Tweet. But the old word-of-mouth grapevine had one big advantage: for people to pass along a rumor, they had to find it at least vaguely plausible. Today, “Hillary is a shape-shifting lizard from another dimension” gets 14,000 retweets. That’s progress of a very curious kind.

Daily grind

Grounds for revolt.

Dear Word Detective:  I was wondering whether you could investigate the origin of the phrase “the daily grind.” I was watching a program called “Secrets of the Castle” in which people in France are recreating a medieval castle. In reference to setting up a water-powered mill to grind flour, one of the English presenters said “This is the end of the daily grind.” Is this correct — that “daily grind” means the chore of grinding grain by hand each day to make bread? — Sarah, Australia.

Hey, that sounds like my kind of show. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages, and I’ve even gotten estimates for a moat around our house. Way too expensive, it turns out. But since our neighbors refuse to wear the nice burlap smocks I made for them, I’ve put my project on hold for the moment anyway. You just can’t get good serfs anymore. Oh well, more mead for me, varlets.

Meanwhile, back at “the daily grind” on that TV show, I’d take that as a bit of a pun rather than a serious explanation of the origin of the term. In the beginning, there was the verb “to grind,” which comes from the Old English “grindan,” meaning “to crush into small pieces, to rub together, to reduce to small particles or powder.” One of the main senses of “to grind” early on was, of course, “to make grain into flour in a mill by crushing between two hard surfaces.” But by the early 17th century it was also being used figuratively to mean “to oppress, to wear down” (“Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” 1764).

“Grind” as a noun followed the same evolutionary path, and by the mid-19th century it was being used metaphorically to describe a dull and difficult task, especially a highly repetitive one (“Weary of the eternal work, of the everlasting grind, of the whirl of London life.” 1866). Thus it wasn’t until 1853 (long after feudalism) that the first use of “daily grind” appeared in print meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “A daily routine of work or activity, especially as considered to be dull or tiresomely repetitious; the usual day’s work or routine, regarded as unremitting and laborious” (“He took refuge in bookshops at lunchtime and wrote long into the night when he was released from his daily grind.” 1983).

By the way, mills, millers and the things they grind have played an important role in human society, and language, pretty much since day one. Here’s a link to a fascinating piece by lexicographer and etymologist Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ( on his visit to a historic California mill and the words derived from or associated with milling.