Evan Morris

Evan Morris, author and newspaper columnist, died on October 8, 2017, after a two-year struggle with cancer. He was 67. The author of four books about words and language, Evan was best-known for his popular website The Word Detective, based on his newspaper column of the same name.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Evan grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, attending public schools before graduating from Brunswick School’s high school, where he excelled in English and Latin. Accepted to Harvard and Brown universities, Evan enrolled at Ohio State University, his mother’s alma mater, where his sister was already in attendance. After college, he worked as a freelance writer and photographer, and as a paralegal at a large international law firm in New York City.

Evan’s father, William Morris, was editor-in-chief of the publishing house Grosset & Dunlap in the 1950s, and later, editor-in-chief of “The American Heritage Dictionary.” William Morris and his wife, Mary D. Morris, also co-authored a number of books about words and language. The Morrises also wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Words, Wit, and Wisdom,” which appeared in more than 50 newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, answering readers’ questions about puzzling words and phrases.

In 1986, Mary Morris died, and in the early 1990s, Evan began co-writing the column with his father. After William Morris’s death in 1994, Evan continued the column, changing its name to “The Word Detective.”

“Soon after I began writing the column,” he wrote in 2000, “I discovered that I possessed a tool that would prove immensely valuable in untangling the histories of words and phrases–a healthy skepticism. […] One of the lessons I have learned is that the more interesting or heartwarming or unusual or ‘cool’ a word origin story is, the less likely it is to reside in the same ballpark as the truth.”

“The Word Detective” column had a large and loyal following, in newspapers from the Green Bay Press-Gazette of Wisconsin to The News of Mexico City and The Japan Times of Tokyo. Evan became a frequent guest on radio programs when an event catapulted an obscure word or phrase into national consciousness, such as “chad,” in the cliff-hanging 2000 U.S. presidential election.

Evan also wrote the weekly “City Slang” column for the New York Daily News in the 1990s, as well as feature articles, book reviews, and humorous essays for Newsday, The Star-Ledger, The Columbus Dispatch, Reader’s Digest, and other newspapers and magazines.

In 1995, Evan created The Word Detective website at http://www.word-detective.com, with the motto “Words and language in a humorous vein.” Each monthly batch of Word Detective columns was accompanied by an opening essay on the trials and amusements of daily life, from the Upper West Side of New York City to rural Ohio, where Evan moved with his wife, writer Kathy Wollard, in 1998. Evan, who described himself as “a language columnist and cat farmer,” chronicled rural life punctuated by power outages and ice storms, derechos and an inland hurricane, and one menacing ball of lightning.

A friend to nearly all animals (he drew the line at coyotes, though he came to enjoy their nightly choruses in the side yard), Evan fed feral cats, elderly possums, and the occasional family of raccoons, among others. He provided water to a grateful goose, separated from its gaggle, and filled the bird feeder all winter long (learning that birds get angry, loudly complaining at the window if you miss too many days). And he became an admirer and friend of the vultures who returned each spring to nest in an old hollow tree, especially the pair he christened “Babs and Monroe.” Evan and his wife also loved and cared for two dogs, as well as a long roster of kitties, all of whom had shown up looking for a warm home, love, and the occasional can of Fancy Feast.

Evan Morris was the author of four books, “The Booklover’s Guide to the Internet” (Ballantine Books, 1996; rev. 2nd ed., 1998 ), “The Word Detective” (Algonquin Books, 2000), “Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words” (Algonquin Books, 2004), and “From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names” (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2004). Two of his humorous essays were featured in “101 Damnations: The Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells,” edited by Michael Rosen (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002).

Books in order of publication:

Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet1996
The Word Detective: Solving the Mysteries Behind Those Pesky Words and Phrases2001
From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names2004
Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words2004
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