The Word Detective…Again

Way back on April 5th, I talked about John Simpson’s The Word Detective, a memoir about Simpson’s time as an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, I found The Word Detective by Evan Morris, published in 2000 by Algonquin, a most charming book, right there on my very own bookshelf.

The Word Detective is a collection of columns from Morris’ newspaper and internet columns. The format is Q and A. I opened the book to page one. Doris A. from Toledo asked about the phrase “run amok.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase myself. Lately, our pastor’s sermons, always ebullient, as she herself is, have  contained the sentence  “The spirit is running amok.” I think she means that God-driven spirituality is on a fierce upswing in our congregation. Perhaps so, but to my discredit, I visualized some kind of unholy ghost cyclone touching down on the Peterson’s pew to awaken a dozing spouse or swooping up (kindly, of course) the ever cranky Matthews’ toddler.

Evan Morris explains that amok comes from the Malay word amuck—“a state of murderous frenzy.” The story goes that inhabitants of Malaysia were given to bouts of depression and drug use, a combination leading to murderous rampages. “Anyone in the path of the person running amok,” Morris explained, “was likely to be sliced and diced with a particularly nasty native sword known as a kris.” The word was also applied to out-of-control elephants who attacked humans.

Morris observes that the meaning in English has become diluted as the centuries rolled by and has become a metaphor used “to describe someone who was simply out of control in some respect and not necessarily chopping folks up.”

I feel much better now, but smile suppression will not work if I hear anything amok preached from the pulpit.

What I don’t feel better about—and now I’m quite serious—is my tardy discovery of Evan Morris. The Word Detective began 62 years ago as “Words, Wit and Wisdom”by  Evan’s father, William Morris, an editor in chief at both Grosset and Dunlap and American Heritage Dictionary.His column appeared in newspapers all over the country and abroad. After writing for thirty-five years, he announced at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon, that it was time for him to quit—unless one of his six grown children were interested in assuming it.

Evan heard himself say he’d take a shot at it. He did. Eventually, he posted the column online. Hundreds of discussions are archived. He has taken on obscure and common words and phrases—malaprops and mondegreens,  duck soup, kerfuffle, hara kirl, brouhaha, flesh out and flummoxed, Peck’s Bad Boy and the Pied Piper.

But now a great sadness. Unlike his father who chose to discontinue writing his column, Evan Morris is being forced to discontinue writing. He has advanced multiple sclerosis and stage four cancer. His last columns are witty and graceful explanations of his declining health and financial reverses. Take a look a look here at his website, Check out the archives, an amazing compilation of etymological dissections and whimsical digressions.  Contribute to his site. I’m going to.

You might even want to contribute to his cause which can be done through PayPal or by sending a check, small or large, to Evan Morris, P.O. Box 1, Millersport OH 43046.

I’m going to.

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