If you’ve ever wondered what that sound at the beginning of “Law & Order” is called, it’s referred to as “dun-dun.” Created by composer Mike Post, the sound is made up of a sampling of the sounds of a jail door slamming shut, a man hitting an anvil with a hammer and 100 men stomping their feet on a wooden floor in Japan. And “It’s not a sound effect,” says Post. “It’s a piece of music that actually gets a royalty.”

And if you think that’s weird, there’s more. Lots more in fact, because this is one of those days when I get to use up some of the word fact orphans that I can’t find any possible way to wedge into my normal word columns (if they can be called “normal” to begin with, that is). Think of this as slightly early spring cleaning.

So, moving right along, why is there an R in “Mrs.” when the abbreviation clearly stands for “missus?” That’s because “Mrs.” is actually the shortening of “mistress,” which was a perfectly fine thing to call a woman years ago, but now, thanks to semantic drift, usually refers to a woman who’s having an affair with a married man. (In the United Kingdom a married couple would be “Mr and Mrs” sans periods.)

Speaking of British words, “draught” (pronounced “draft”) was first used by Charles Dickens in “Sketches by Boz” when “Mrs Bloss (was) taking a pill and a draught of Guinness.”

Still in the U.K., Wordle fans there were less than pleased with the puzzle solutions of “humor” and “favor” instead of the British spellings “humour” and “favour.” (And because I just typed two British words, my computer is now suggesting I “change locale to British English.” Who knew?)

The Brits got their revenge on us American Wordle players when the game’s solution was “bloke,” while younger people on both sides of the pond felt trolled when one day’s answer was “caulk,” complaining that no one would know that answer unless they lived at Home Depot.


Words that troll all of us are those fancy, 50-cent words that we have to look up. What’s even worse is when those fancy words also have two very different meanings. For example, “meiosis” is a type of cell division in our bodies. For our purposes though it is a deliberate, euphemistic understatement, such as referring to the recent school cancellation “because of a few snowflakes.”

An embolism is an obstruction of an artery. But it can also mean something quite different. From the Greek “embolus” (plug), an embolism is also an extra month that’s inserted into Hebrew and Chinese calendars about every three years.

And then there are “archaisms,” or old-fashioned words, including “lorgnette,” which is a pair of glasses, such as opera glasses, that are held by a long handle on one side. Holding their glasses that way left the people at the lazaretto (lepers hospital) free to chirotonize (vote by show of hands) on what to do about the increasing amount of smog (a portmanteau word created in 1905 by Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux combining “smoke” and “fog”).

And that’s it for today’s random word facts. I feel better already for having decluttered a little bit of my brain. If only I knew how to keep it that way. Dun-dun.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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