Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Catawba or Catalpa?

August 17th, 2021

Judith Hanlon sent me an interesting question today: “Is it “catalpa or “catawba”? I’ve heard both, and seen both in print (gardening or fishing references), but “catawba” isn’t in any dictionary. Should it be?”

I responded the following:

Thank you for this question. These words have fascinated me for a long, long time.

Today these are two different words, both originating in the Carolinas in Siouan languages. One of those languages is the Catawba language spoken by the Catawba indians who once inhabited an area close to the North and South Carolinas border, along the—wouldn’t you just know it?—Catawba River.

It is also the name of a reddish-yellowish grape and the wine made from it. This name probably came from one of the sources above. I’m from central North Carolina and, as a teenager, loved to climb up grape vines to the tops of trees and eat “fox grapes”, a smaller reddish-yellowish wild grape, no doubt related to the catawba. Folks in central North Carolina also grew catawba grapes commercially.

Catalpa in the English language refers to something quite different. A catalpa tree is a broad-leafed tree with seeds that look like long beans. Down South in the spring they are attacked by caterpillars that make great freshwater fishing bait. Everyone in North Carolina mispronounced this word “catawba”.

We had one on the street where I was born and my mother loved to tell this story about me as a baby. She took me in her arms one day and visited the catalpa tree which was at that time filled with catalpa worms. She took one on to her finger to show it to me up close and, according to her, I said, “Go ‘way, Worm Beard!”

These two words may have historically been the same word, since in many dialects of English the L before a consonant is pronounced like a W. That is the case in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My sons grew up pronouncing milk [miwk], help [hewp], and belt [bewt]. Still do. Caulk everywhere is pronounce [cawk].

So, catawba and catalpa may, in fact, have originated as the same word pronounced differently in different parts of the country.

Martin Luther King Day

February 2nd, 2020

I missed Martin Luther King Day, but Jackie Strauss didn’t. Here is what she posted on her Facebook page:

“I’m very pleased to have contributed many suggestions of words to Dr. Robert Beard whose daily “What’s the Good Word?” is sent to many thousands all over the world. I am even more pleased when my suggestions are accepted by Dr. Beard, and am proud to say they have numbered many. Here’s one of them from 2016, appropriately in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this his commemorative weekend. Thank you, Dr. Beard!”

The History of Linguistics on the Web

November 11th, 2018

I just found a relatively short, accurate history of the Internet at I found in it that I had written in 1998 “The web will be an encyclopedia of the world by the world for the world. There will be no information or knowledge that anyone needs that will not be available. The major hindrance to international and interpersonal understanding, personal and institutional enhancement, will be removed. It would take a wilder imagination than mine to predict the effect of this development on the nature of humankind.”

I recall giving talks about the future of the Web at several universities which contained this quote or something similar.

The Migration of “out of pocket”

May 3rd, 2018

George Kovac down in Miami, Florida, wrote today about an interesting shift in meaning that I thought any word nerd would be interested in. He writes:

“As you remind us often, language is not logic, and words take on slightly unpredictable nuance or even meaning as they work their way through culture and history. An example I observed happening in my lifetime is the phrase ‘out of pocket’. It originally meant money spent on purchases from third parties. For example, if you break something and pay someone to fix it, you are out of pocket for the cost of the repair. But if you fix it yourself, you are not out of pocket—you have spent your own time and resources.”

“Some time in my adult life the phrase ‘out of pocket’ also came to mean ‘unavailable’ as in ‘I can’t schedule a meeting that week because I will be out of pocket at a conference.’ That usage I find jarring and lacking in any metaphorical grounding. Unless you imagine we inhabit pockets, but that’s just dumb. In that case a more apt metaphor would be “I will be out of burrow.” But that is just a cranky observation on my part, because language moves on its own without fixed or consistent rules, and that is as it should be. Words trope.”

My reply to him was as follows:

“We mostly have pockets with devoted uses. I always keep my wallet in my left rear pocket, my change in my left front, my keys in my right front, and my handkerchief in my right rear pocket. I can understand the connection between pocket and “proper place for”. So, if I’m out of pocket without the my, I am clearly speaking metaphorically of ‘out of my proper place’.”

“On the other hand, ‘out of the pocket’ is common enough football jargon referring to a quarterback, who should remain (as long as possible) ‘in the (quarterback) pocket’, i.e. his proper place, where he should be. Maybe the connection passes through football jargon.”

I Love Living in the Central Susquehanna Valley

January 4th, 2018

A front-page story in the Sunbury Daily Item one day last year was headlined “Three Men Cited in Opossum Abuse Case”. The story that followed reported that the three were fined over $1000. I love living in a region where this kind of story makes front-page news.

Hilarious Note on ‘Hilarious’

September 9th, 2017

George Kovac wrote in response to our Good Word hilarious. “Bob, and of course, ‘there was Pope Hilarius, who reigned from 461 to 468.’ You cannot make up material this good.” He went on to write:

“I was disappointed the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ instead of reaching back to revive this name, so that when someone says this new pope is kind, I could add, ‘Yes, and he is Hilarius 2.'”

Uncommonly clever, as I have come to expect from the lawyer from Miami. I hope his family and home survived Irma in good condition.

Dr. Goodword on CNN

May 4th, 2017

At last I get a word in edgewise on commercial TV:

Spamming Report

April 2nd, 2017

We have just exceeded the 2 million (2,037,752) pieces of spam filtered from this blog.

The Origin of ‘Con Artist’

April 19th, 2016

My old South African e-friend Chris Stewart sent me the following e-mail this morning.

On the way in this morning, I was listening to a BBC program on sociology and the subject of “con men” (confidence tricksters) came up. To my surprise it was asserted that in this context, “con” was not a contraction of “confidence trickster”, but derived from the nautical term [meaning “steer (a ship)”].

Having grown up on the sea, this sense of “to steer” resonates well, but my attempt to verify this has been for naught. I am guessing that the average English-speaking person of today would know the term only from the likes of Startrek (Captain Kirk: “You have the con, Mr. Spock.”) Perhaps you can elucidate?

My response:

I lost confidence in the BBC news when it offered two appearances of my former partner at to discuss his precise (to the minute) prediction of when the English vocabulary would have its millionth word.

The Dallas Morning Star reporter who did the same story telephoned me and I told him that the prediction was completely fraudulent, so they published my comment with two or three others who shared the same opinion, along with the story.

My former partner was a clever marketer and he knew that people thought you could count the number of words in a language despite the evidence against this presumption. He even put up an article next to my article at claiming that I was wrong, you can count the number of words in a language at any given moment, which he conveniently provided. His article was linked to ten times more pages than mine.

Whomever you heard on the BBC is dead wrong. Con is an Americanism and all dictionaries, US and UK, trace it back to “confidence game”. That includes the OED, which I trust much farther than BBC when it comes to the English language.

Tsundoku: A Perfect Sniglet

March 1st, 2016

Here is a new word, tsundoku, that has crept into Wikipedia (only), but no dictionaries. It occurs over 100,000 times over the World Wide Web, including Spanish, Croatian, Thai and many other websites throughout the world.

“Tsundoku” (n.) is the constant act of buying books, but never reading them. Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them. This is done by the owners of the books, not by the booksellers. The origin of “Tsundoku” is a Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books). 「積んどく」 “tsundoku” is a euphonic change of 「積んでおく」.

English borrows precious few Japanese words, especially words easily confused with tsunami. However, here is a word that we need but occurs in no dictionary–just the definition of a sniglet. So, I thought I would toss it out for a ‘sniglet’ contest.

Since I am currently divesting myself of most of my library, I can offer as a prize some of my best books. For sure the “Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms” and the “New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced Words”. Substitutions will be possible.