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 Topica 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


Paint it mauve.

Dear Word Detective: I’d appreciate your detailing the origin of “chartreuse,” the color. I understand it’s from the color of a French liqueur. — Warren I. Pollock.

Ok, chartreuse. Which one is that again? Y’know what’s funny is that while I’m not colorblind and can easily tell red from green and so forth, I seem to be color-name blind. Major colors, no problem. But mention “chartreuse,” “mauve” or some other weirdo hue and I draw a complete blank. I mean, what the heck color is “fuchsia”? Sounds like something you’d catch from  toads. Teal? Ecru? What? Don’t bother telling me, because I’ll forget it in five minutes. My brain is apparently wired for primary colors only.

It is true that the color “chartreuse” is named for the color of “chartreuse,” a liqueur made by the monks of La Grande-Chartreuse, which is the chief monastery of the Roman Catholic Carthusian order in the Chartreuse range of the French Alps. The liqueur Chartreuse, made from herbs and brandy, is a pale apple-green (as distinct to the rich emerald green of absinthe, which is, of course, made of wormwood and pure evil). The monks, or their subcontractors, have been cranking out this Chartreuse stuff since the early 17th century, although the order was actually founded in 1084. (That’s 600 years they’re gonna have to explain on their time sheets.) The color “chartreuse” is halfway between green and yellow, and color aficionados recognize two variant hues, “chartreuse yellow,” skewed toward yellow, and “chartreuse green,” skewed toward guess what. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are often painted “chartreuse yellow” these days because it’s considered a more visible and distinctive color than the traditional red. That’s probably why a disaffected homeowner in a bland development near us repainted his entire house (formerly a noxious putty color) blinding chartreuse yellow in protest a few years ago. It was awesome, but the homeowners’ association was not amused and prolonged lawsuits ensued.

Elsewhere on the Spectrum of Mystery, it turns out that “mauve” is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “Any of a range of light shades of purple between lilac and violet.” It’s a good thing they threw that “purple” in there, because I know that lilac and violets are two kinds of flowering plants, but I can’t quite picture them. Anyway, “mauve” (which appeared in the mid-19th century and is pronounced either “mawve” or “mowve” in the US) comes from the French “mauve” meaning “mallow plant,” mallow being a family of flowering plants related to cotton and okra.

“Ecru” is my kind of color. It’s the color of unbleached linen, i.e., a pale beige or off-white. The word “ecru” is, in fact, French for “unbleached” or “raw” (derived from the Latin “crudus,” raw). “Ecru” first appeared in print in English in 1869.

“Teal” comes from the Old English “tele,” which has close relatives in German and Dutch. A “teal” is a kind of small duck, in fact, according to the OED, “the smallest of the ducks” (to which I am tempted to reply “What ducks? I don’t see no ducks.”). Teals are supposedly common in Europe, Asia and America. The color “teal” (first appearing in 1923) is “a shade of dark greenish blue resembling the patches of this color on the head and wings of the teal.” (OED). I am told that to this day interior designers often carry an actual live teal in a small box in order to compare it to paint and fabric samples, but I think someone may be goofing on me. Lastly, “fuchsia” (also debuting in 1923) is a shade of red named after the flowers of the “fuchsia” (pronounced “FOO-shiyah”) shrub, which was named after the 16th century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs.


Unless, as Fat Freddy Freekowtski once explained about the turkey, “It was already stuffed.”

Dear Word Detective: I grew up hearing and using the word “jiblettes” for something small. For example, “There were jiblettes of paper all over the floor.” I’m not sure of the spelling, “jiblettes” or “jiblets,” we just used the word. I have never seen it written and cannot find it in a dictionary. — PJ Mahan.

That’s an interesting question, and it led me down a fairly weird path for a few minutes.  You had, understandably, spelled the word in question “jiblette,” and that made me wonder, briefly, if it might be connected to “jib” (sail), perhaps likening those scraps of paper to tiny sails. I think I deserve five points for imagination on that one, but I’m glad the answer is much simpler. The word you’re seeking is “giblets,” which is pronounced “jiblets” (and in fact “jiblette” was a common spelling in the 18th century).

“Giblet” first appeared in English in the early 14th century, drawn from the Old French “gibelet,” meaning a stew made of game (related to the modern French “gibelotte,” rabbit stew). The initial meaning in English was “an inessential appendage,” and from there “giblet” moved on to mean “garbage” or “entrails.” By the 16th century “giblet,” usually in the plural form “giblets,” meant the entrails and other bits of a goose, turkey, etc., that are removed before cooking. This is the common meaning of “giblets” today, and turkeys raised in supermarkets usually have their “giblets” neatly tucked into a plastic bag and stowed inside for people who use them to make gravy, etc.

“Giblets” was also used in this “entrails” case in the same sense we use “guts” metaphorically today, i.e., to mean “courage or fortitude,” as well as more generally to mean “essence,” as in “to join giblets” meaning “to marry” (“If your ladyship’s not engaged, what’s the reason but we may join giblets without any pribble-prabble?” 1769).

All of these senses pretty clearly connect to the original “stew” sense of the French source, since entrails and such bits would make good ingredients for a stew. In the 17th century, however, a more general sense of “giblets” arose, this one meaning “odds and ends of little value,”  “bits and pieces” or, applied to a person, “someone of little importance; a contemptible person” (“Oh fie upon ‘em giblets!” 1638). This is almost certainly the same word as the “jiblettes” you remember being used to mean little scraps of “stuff.”


To boldly hit “print.”

Dear Word Detective:  Recently, I got to wondering about the word “font.” There are several definitions, including a baptismal “font,” a typeface and someone, like yourself, a “font” of wisdom. I can accept that there might be some similarity between a baptismal font (water being splashed about generously) and a “font of wisdom” (wisdom being splashed about generously), but how do typefaces fit into the picture? Even more obscure, perhaps, is the word “fontanelle.” My sources suggest it comes from a similar source as the other meanings of font — i.e., a little spring. Ew. — Jim Brown.

“Font of wisdom”? OK, that got the cats snickering. When I was a kid, my mother framed a cartoon from the New Yorker and put it on the wall of the home office she shared with my father (who started this column in 1954). It showed a woman laughingly addressing her husband, a stereotypical bearded wise man in robes, saying “I still can’t get over your being a sage. You didn’t know beans when I married you.” (Interestingly, if you Google “beans sage cartoon,” you’ll find that the New Yorker is selling prints of that cartoon.)

Explaining how a baptismal “font” could possibly be related to the sort of “font” you use on your computer turns out, thankfully, to be unnecessary. There are actually two separate and completely unrelated “fonts” in English.

The typeface kind of “font” is the easier to explain. We use “font” loosely to mean a style of type (e.g., Comic Sans, the official Microsoft font), but, more precisely, a “font” is a complete set of a certain style of type, i.e., including a complete alphabet, punctuation, numerals, etc. This “font” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, based on the French “fonte,” from “fondre,” meaning “to cast” as one “casts” objects from molten metal. The first use of “font” in English was, in fact, to mean simply “cast iron.” Type at that time was, of course, cast from metal, but it wasn’t until the late 17th century that “font” (then often in the form “fount” or even “found”) was used in the “family of type” sense (“Break down the Printing-Presses, melt the Founds.” 1723).

“Font” in the other senses you mention is from a different source, the Latin “fons,” meaning “spring” or “fountain.” (“Fons” is also the ultimate source of “fountain.”) The earliest use of “font” in Old English was to mean a receptacle for water in a church used for baptism, etc. The form “fount,” which had the same source but is sometimes considered a different word, popped up in literary use in the 16th century with the meaning “spring, source” in both literal and figurative senses (“Ancient founts of inspiration well thro’ all my fancy yet.” Tennyson, 1842). This is the elusive “fount” or “font” of wisdom. As to which is correct in this sense, both are; although the poetic use of “fount” has made “fount of wisdom” more popular, “font” seems to be gaining on it in recent years.

“Fontanelle” comes directly from French, where it means literally “little fountain.” The most common uses of “fontanelle” are for the depression or hollow between two muscles or the areas of a baby’s skull that remain soft and flexible for the first year or so after birth. (The human skull is actually made up of six separate bones that fuse together over time.) The use of “fontanelle” for these spots (and the space between muscles) comes from the slight depression at such places, similar to a spring in a shallow hollow of the earth.