Get A Clew

By Louise Ure

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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.

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* 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.

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* 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?

LU

25 thoughts on “Get A Clew

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Louise – these are fascinating examples. I love the origin of words and phrases.

    Another nice one is red herring, which came from early fox hunt saboteurs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, herring were one of the most common fish caught around Britain. To preserve them in those pre-refrigerator days, they salted and smoked them, which turned the herring a deep reddish brown colour. Smoked herring had a particularly strong smell. Those wishing to disrupt a fox hunt would drag them across the hunt route to distract the hounds, which followed the red herring rather than the true trail. This tactic proved so effective that the phrase passed into common usage.

    As for words that sound lovely on the tongue, I recall Stephen Fry being asked for his favourite word:

    “Plinth,” he replied. Just try saying it aloud and you’ll see exactly what he meant … ;-]

    Reply
  2. Jake Nantz

    How did I know Zoe and her word of the week would be here pretty early on? Must be psychic….

    I also love the derivation of words or phrases, though nothing comes immediately to mind. Oh well.

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    J.D. I think somebody already did. In “The Big Sleep,” Bogart pronounces the word “sham-us” rather than the Irish/Anglicized pronunciation “shay-mus.” Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t!

    Reply
  4. Jake Nantz

    Ooh, I did think of one, and it’s so obvious to me but might not be to others. In the south (and probably elsewhere) Highway Patrolmen are called Smokies due to their hat resembling that of Smokey the Bear (only you can prevent forest fires, y’know…)

    Then again, you guys probably already knew that.

    Nevermind.

    Reply
  5. Rae

    I love words and word origins. One of my current favorites is ‘kakistocracy’, which is ‘government by the worst men’. I also like ‘omphaloskepsis’, i.e. navel-gazing, a lot.

    I love made-up words, too, like ‘kerfuffle’ and ‘snicklefritz’.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    Hey Jake, the hat comparison makes sense to me, but I didn’t know they called Highway Patrolmen “Smokies.” Nice addition!

    And Rae, you’ve made my day with KAKISTOCRACY! I’m going to use it — loud and often.

    Reply
  7. Lisa Hendrix

    ” 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.”

    Gee, I guess things have changed a bit in England. Now they’re watched ALL the time, a la 1984. Cameras everywhere.

    Reply
  8. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Rhoades, roger that.

    I will say this, though…does anyone remember sniglets? They were words created by a comedian, Rich Hall, who used to make up his own words for obscure things. They were meant to be funny, though they usually weren’t.

    My uncle’s two favorites:

    1) Alpopuck [AL-po-puk] – (n) the name for the image of a dog nosing its bowl across a floor, trying to get that last bit of dog food.

    2) Pefly [PEFF-lee] – (n) the name for those random bits of fuzz and fluff you sometimes find floating lazily through the air. Usually white in color, though it’s not a requirement.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    Tom, you’re right! I haven’t read Yiddish Policeman’s Union yet, but it sounds like it has all the threads of a “shammus” novel.

    JT, I just signed up for wordsmith! Now that’s a daily email I’ll be glad to get.

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    Jake, I loved sniglets, although now I can’t remember my faves, of course.

    Maybe “nagivator”: the spouse in the front seat who corrects your driving all the time.

    Reply
  11. Zoë Sharp

    How about “meanderthal” – large person who wanders slowly into your path when you’re late and in a hurry.

    Wow, Rae – “kakistocracy” – we’re living in one and I never knew … ;-]

    And don’t I know it about those CCTV cameras. We live in the most-spied-upon country in Europe – much good has it done us.

    Reply
  12. Zoë Sharp

    How about “meanderthal” – person who wanders slowly about in your way when you’re late and in a hurry.

    Wow, Rae – “kakistocracy” – we’re living in one and I never knew … ;-]

    And don’t I know it about those CCTV cameras. We live in the most-spied-upon country in Europe – much good has it done us.

    Reply
  13. Louise Ure

    J.D., that’s not a Pupkiss; it’s Nose Art!

    And “the ability to work the faucets with your toes while lying in the tub” was nowhere near the first thing I thought of when I first heard “Aquadexterity.” Mine had something to do with feeling more flexible and graceful when in the water. (I like yours better.)

    Reply

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