By Louise Ure
For the criminally-minded among you, my friend Jude Greber (Gillian Roberts) wrote me recently that she’d just read “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," a nonfiction account of a homicide in England in the 1860’s, which was full of interesting tidbits on the birth of the detective, and of the detective novel.
* The word ‘clue‘ derives from ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.
* The word "detect" comes from the Latin ‘de-tegere’ or "unroof" and the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus, ‘the prince of demons’, who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside.
* Because of the Brits aversion to being observed or spied on by the police force, a Bobby (named for Robert Peel and also called “Peels” at first) had to be in uniform all the time – even when off duty – so that the populace would know who he was and he couldn’t abuse his role.
These examples, of course, sent us on a flurry of research into other mystery-oriented words.
* The immediate ancestor of the word “sleuth” is the compound sleuthhound, "a dog, such as a bloodhound, used for tracking or pursuing." The shortened form sleuth, was being used to mean "detective" as early as 1872.
* There are two schools of thought for the derivation of the word “Shamus.”
One group believes that Shamus, as an American slang term, first meant "policeman", not "private detective" and that it arose as an Anglicized spelling of the Irish name Séamas because so many of the policemen in America’s cities were Irish or of Irish descent.
Others suggest the Hebrew shammes — "a beadle or sexton in a Jewish synagogue" — as a possible origin. But why would a Yiddish word for a synagogue beadle become American slang for a detective?
The answer may lie in the Yiddish saying: “I know the shammes and the shammes knows the whole town.”
The shammes in an Eastern European synagogue indeed had to know everyone in town. To begin with, he had to know where everyone lived, since it was his job to knock on each Jew’s door and rouse him for the service. And it was his job to know each Jew’s name and father’s name so that he might be called up correctly to the Torah; to know who was getting married, had given birth, was ill, or had recovered from an illness or escaped danger, so that the appropriate blessing might be made for him or her; and even to know what each family’s economic situation was so that he might advise the synagogue’s officials, how big an annual contribution to expect.
The shammes was in a sense the “private eye” of the shtetl: If you wanted to know something about somebody, he was the logical person to ask.
* How about Private Eye? Did it come from the Pinkerton Agency’s big eye logo or was it a shortened version of “private investigator”? Given that the Pinkerton operatives were never called “investigators” (they were always “detectives” or “Pinkerton detectives”) it was probably a combination of the two: the “I” taken from “investigator,” and the spelling “eye” taken from the Pinkerton logo.
* Alibi, of course, is the Latin word for "elsewhere." The "al" prefix means "other," and "ibi" means "there." Therefore "alibi" does NOT mean an excuse (the way it’s often misused) but means evidence or proof that someone was somewhere else at the time of a crime.
* Autopsy has also gone through a shift of meaning in its current usage. It comes from the Greek “auto” meaning self and “opsy” meaning eye, reading together as “to see oneself.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the autopsy first meant “seeing with one’s own eyes, eye-witnessing; personal observation or inspection,” and the first uses of the word autopsy were with regards to self-reflection and observation. Anybody know when we first began to use it in its current anatomical and forensic guise?
Word derivation has always been of interest to me, and the argot of our chosen field provides lots of words to explore. Are there any others you guys always wanted to know about? Or any words you just love saying for the way they sound?