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

Attorney at law

He’s over there, taking a deposition from a groundhog.

Dear Word Detective: I have long wondered what the word “attorney” actually means. It seems to be used interchangeably with the word “lawyer,” but why do we specify “attorney at law”? Is there such a thing as “attorney at medicine” or “attorney at accounting” or “attorney at landscaping”? What is the precise meaning of the word? — Christopher Valdez.

“Attorney at Landscaping” would be awesome. Actually, I’d settle for an “Attorney at Lawn,” some hotshot in a bespoke suit to mow the three acres we laughingly call a lawn. Spilling gasoline on his wingtips, smearing 10W-30 on his Hermes tie. Pro bono, of course.

It’s true that “attorney” and “lawyer” are generally considered synonyms here in the US (although lawyers almost universally seem to prefer being called “attorneys”). But ’twas not always so.

“Attorney” is derived from the verb “attorn,” meaning generally “to turn over to another person, to delegate, to transfer,” with the object of the verb being anything from real property or a contractual obligation to intangible items such as one’s allegiance to a country or ruler, an important point in feudal law (“The Gascoignes … had sent into England, to shew causes why they should not atturne to the Duke.” 1611). “Attorn” comes from the Old French “atourner” (“a” in this case meaning “to,” plus “tourner,” to turn), and first appeared in English in the early 13th century.

“Attorney” appeared in English about a century later, with the initial meaning of simply “delegated agent or deputy.” This broad sense is now obsolete, and was replaced by “private attorney” or “attorney in fact,” meaning a person authorized (by a written “power of attorney”) to make decisions, invest money, sue people, bid on eBay and other important tasks on behalf of another person. The designated “attorney in fact” in such cases does not need to be a lawyer (someone trained and certified in knowledge of the law).

Counterposed to the “private attorney” was the “public attorney,” or “attorney at law,” a qualified and recognized (usually by a bar association or other legal authority) agent capable of representing clients in judicial proceedings. In the US, attorneys are just attorneys, whether drawing up deeds or defending miscreants in court, but in Britain “attorneys” were responsible for soliciting clients and developing cases that would actually be presented by “barristers” in court, which brings us to an interesting story. Apparently attorneys managed to amass such a bad reputation very early on that “attorney” became synonymous with “knave” (“Vile Attornies, now an useless race.” Alexander Pope, 1733) and “swindler” (“Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.'” J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). It eventually got so bad that, by an act of Parliament in 1873, “attorney” as a title was abolished in Britain and the term was merged with “solicitor,” previously reserved for those who prepared cases for the civil Chancery court.

So, as to your question, you could use a grant of Power of Attorney to designate another person to do just about anything for you, from making your medical decisions to deciding where to plant shrubs. If you paid that person enough, they’d probably even agree to wear a t-shirt reading “Attorney at Landscaping,” and the more I think about that, the more I like it.


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.