The Word Detective

Evan Morris

Published by Algonquin Books, 2000
ISBN 10: 1565122399 / ISBN 13: 9781565122390
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Synopsis: Comic, skeptic, cyber-sleuth, syndicated columnist, and inspired wordsmith, Evan Morris is the Word Detective. He's an etymologist with a sense of humor, a lexicographer with an attitude. Morris's unique approach to language and his distinctive brand of absurdity have found a loyal following of readers curious about everything from soup to nuts--and that means the origins of the phrase soup to nuts, and thousands more words and phrases. This book is a collection of 150 of Morris's language columns, which appear in newspapers throughout the country and on his popular Web site.

A clueless husband writes the WORD DETECTIVE to ask if his wife has insulted him by calling him gormless. Coworkers write to settle a watercooler dispute about the logic of feed a cold, starve a fever. The Word Detective snoops around, follows the leads, and uncovers the answers. The book is chock-full of fascinating lore about the origins and uses of the English language and includes special sections exploring groups of words such as euphemisms, eponyms, and onomatopoeic forms. Funny and offbeat, clever and curmudgeonly, irreverent and irritable, this detective is for all of us who appreciate a dash of wit with our words.

Review: Who needs Sherlock Holmes when you've got a word detective? Evan Morris, whose Web site and syndicated column solve more mysteries than even Scotland Yard could manage, has assembled a book of entertaining questions and answers that will amuse, educate, and resolve arguments all at once. From "amok" to "zarf", the definitions and origins of words are explained with a delightful combination of wit and research that will leave curious readers delighted.

Each entry begins with the original question asked of Morris, complete with the writer's misspellings and misinformation, and a few of these may result in cringes from the serious wordsmiths out there. One query incorrectly remembers the metaphor "hair of the dog that bit you" as "Something like bite the dog's tail or the dog that bit you last night," and Morris makes plenty of entertaining suggestions regarding these incorrect versions before finally explaining that the phrase have been around since about 1546, and specifically refers to a hangover remedy. The author is in especially fine form while explaining the phrase "passing the bar"--who knew that it dates back to a requirement that lawyers wrestle a grizzly "bar" before entering into practice? The correct explanation follows Morris's whimsical tale, but 16th-century England just doesn't have quite the same entertainment value. Several special sections cover larger topics, such as food- and animal-based phrases (easy as pie, dog days), onomatopoeia, euphemisms, diner slang, and Yiddish expressions. While not as detailed as the alphabetical entries, words like "wreck", "mensch," and "throb" are given satisfying, if short, descriptions. --Jill Lightner

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Title: The Word Detective
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: 2000
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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