Elementary, My Dear Wordnik! Mystery Words

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man behind Sherlock Holmes. To celebrate (and console ourselves over the end of the second season of the Masterpiece Mystery series), we’ve rounded up some words about mysteries and mystery solvers.

The word detective, which came about in the early 1800s, was originally short for detective police. Detective is the adjectival form of detect, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to uncover.” Tec is an abbreviation of detective that originated in 1879.

The origin of sleuth is less direct. The word, which has Old Norse origins, came about in the 13th century, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and meant “track or trail of a person.” This sense of sleuth gave us sleuthhound, a kind of bloodhound, which gained the figurative meaning of “keen investigator” in 1849. In 1872, this sense of sleuthhound was shortened to sleuth.

Hawkshaw is American English slang and comes from the “name of the detective in ‘The Ticket-of-Leave Man,'” a 19th century British play. (A ticket of leave, in case you were wondering, is “a license or permit given to a convict, or prisoner of the crown, to go at large, and to labor for himself before the expiration of his sentence.”) Snoop, another synonym for detective, gained its mystery-solving meaning around 1891. It originally meant “to go about in a prying or sneaking way” and probably comes from the Dutch snoepen, “to eat on the sly.”

While the character Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, it wasn’t until 1903 that sherlock came to mean “detective” in general. The phrase no shit, Sherlock, said when someone is being obvious, seems to have gained popularity in the 1980s. However, we did find a mention in a 1976 book, No Bugles, No Drums.

Gumshoe originated around 1906, and comes from “the rubber-soled shoes [detectives] wore,” perhaps because they allow the wearer “to move about stealthily.” Dick meaning detective “is recorded from 1908, perhaps as a shortened variant of detective.” Shamus, slang for a police officer or private investigator, may come from the Hebrew shamash, “servant,” referring to the “sexton of a synagogue,” and influenced by the Irish name Seamus, or James, “a typical name for an Irish cop.”

A skip tracer specializes in “finding people who have attempted to disappear,” with the idea of tracing someone who has skipped town. We couldn’t find an origin, though we did spot this mention in a newspaper article from 1930 about lexicographers and slang expressions: “Of course, I know without being told what a stick-up artist is, even tho yesterday I did not know what a skip-tracer was.

Finally, private eye was first recorded around 1938, according to World Wide Words, and is “a pun derived from private investigator, via the abbreviations PI and private I.”

Usually where there’s a detective, there’s a mystery. Mystery in the sense of ‘detective story’ was first recorded in 1908. The word originally referred to ancient religious rites such as “purifications, sacrificial offerings, processions, songs, dances, dramatic performances, and the like” before it came to mean anything “of which the meaning, explanation, or cause is not known, and which awakens curiosity or inspires awe.”

A whodunit is “a story dealing with a crime and its solution,” while a howdunit focuses not on who committed the crime but how the crime was committed. Similar is a howdhecatchem, also known as an inverted detective story, which reveals the crime and perpetrator in the beginning, then focuses on how the perpetrator was caught by the crime-solver. In a locked room mystery, the crime is “committed under apparently impossible circumstances,” involving a “crime scene that no intruder could have entered or left, e.g., a locked room.” A procedural is so-called because it involves a sequence of technical details or procedures.

Hard-boiled meaning “callous” came about around 1886. The origin of the hard-boiled detective is unclear although we did find this citation in a 1925 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Hard-boiled fiction, which gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, is “ distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of violence and sometimes sex.” Noir is a type of crime literature that features “tough, cynical characters and bleak settings,” and is short for the French roman noir, literally “black novel,” a type of gothic fiction.

In cozy mysteries, or cozies, “sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” The crime-solvers are “nearly always amateurs. . .and frequently women” who are “well-educated, intuitive, and often hold jobs (caterer, innkeeper, librarian, teacher, dog trainer, shop owner, reporter) that bring them into constant contact with other residents of their town and the surrounding region.” The blog Traditional Mysteries does a great job researching the origin of the term, tracing it back to the early 1960s. The term may come from tea cozy.

For even more mystery words, check out this list of snoops, some perponyms, and these words noir.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by timofeia]

Prison Terms

Alcatraz prison cells

The pokey. The slammer. The clink. How many different ways are there to say prison, and where do these words come from? We decided to find out.

Our latest obsession isn’t completely arbitrary. Forty-nine years ago today, Alcatraz closed as a federal penitentiary. Also called the Rock, the island was named for bird that roosted there, the pelican, which in Spanish is, you guessed it, alcatraz.

From the other side of the country came the expression up the river, which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, originally referred to the Hudson River and Sing Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. Sing Sing was the original name of Ossining, and was derived from the name of the Native American tribe, the Sint Sinck, who sold the area to one Frederick Philipse.

Some prisons were so famous (or in some cases, infamous), their names became common words. The stir in stir-crazy (“distraught or restless from long confinement in or as if in prison”) is a slang term for prison, and comes from Start Newgate, “a former prison in London notorious for its unsanitary conditions and burnt down in riots in 1780.” Meanwhile, Newgate became a verb meaning “to imprison.”

Another synonym for prison, bocardo, originally referred to Bocardo Prison in Oxford, England. Bastille, which comes from an Old French word meaning “fortress, tower, fortified, building,” was “built in Paris in the 14th century and used as a prison in the 17th and 18th centuries,” and now refers to “a jail or prison (especially one that is run in a tyrannical manner).”

But how does one get to prison? You could take a paddy wagon, which may come from Paddy, which originated from “the pet form of the common Irish proper name Patrick (Ir. Padraig),” and became a disparaging term for someone of Irish descent. Paddy wagon was so-called perhaps “because many police officers were Irish” at the time (around 1930). The paddy wagon is also known as a meat wagon, cattle car, or Black Maria.

According to World Wide Words, Black Maria is American in origin, though its exact etymology is unclear. The name may come from a Boston story “about Maria Lee, a large black woman who kept a boarding house in the 1820s with such severity that she became more feared than the police, who called on her to help them catch and restrain criminals,” or from the name of a “famous black racehorse of the period, also named Black Maria.”

Before heading to the big house, prisoners may first be held in a sponging-house, “a victualing-house or tavern where persons arrested for debt were kept by a bailiff for twenty-four hours before being lodged in prison, in order that their friends might have an opportunity of settling the debt.” The sponging-house was so-named “from the extortionate charges made upon prisoners for their accommodation therein,” with sponge meaning “to drain; harass by extortion; squeeze.”

A bridewell was “a house of correction for the confinement of vagrants and disorderly persons,” and became a name “generally given to a prison in connection with a police-station, for the temporary detention of those who have been arrested by the police.” According to the Virtual Linguist, the term bridewell “comes from an old area of London near modern-day Fleet Street, where there was a well dedicated to St Bride,” a patron saint of Ireland, and “is still used by some police forces in the UK, usually as the name of a police station, or of a custody suite.”

A spinning house was “a house of correction, so-called because women of loose character were obliged to spin or to beat hemp as punishment.” Spinster, which originally referred to any person, man or woman, whose occupation was spinning, also meant “a woman of an evil life or character: so called from being forced to spin in the house of correction.” The word is now commonly known as “a woman who has remained single beyond the conventional age for marrying.”

A rogue-house is a house for rogues; a lobspound is a pound for lobs or louts, and was “often applied to the juvenile prison made for a child between the feet of a grown-up person.” Another prison term, hoosegow, was coined in 1911 in the western U.S. probably as a mispronunciation of the Mexican Spanish juzgao, “tribunal, court.” An older term, calaboose (1792), is from the Louisiana French calabouse, which comes from the Spanish calabozo, “dungeon.”

A panopticon was a prison proposed by Jeremy Bentham, “so arranged that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times without being seen by them.” On a smaller scale is the Judas, “a small opening in the door or wall of a cell to enable the guards to watch the prisoners.” Also called a judas-hole.

Whatever you call the joint, be sure to keep your nose clean and stay out.

Csókol az én -m csacsi

For the frequent traveler: how to say kiss my ass in 36 different languages. Nice, though if they included a pronunciation guide, or audio, it would be nicer.

From a site about local motocross racing, naturally.

Update: This list is crap. My Spanish is good enough that I should have realized this, but I pretty much just snickered and posted. Apologies to anyone who used one of these in conversation and was made fun of.

I think some… motocross afficionado, I guess, just typed “kiss my ass” into babelfish a bunch of times, and posted the results. The correct Spanish is, I think, “besa mi culo”, but babelfish gives you “besa mis asno”, which means “kiss my donkey.”

When lexicographers strike!

Daniel Cassidy’s “How the Irish Invented Slang” was recently the subject of a flattering (some might say fawning) story in The New York Times.

Grant Barrett, professional lexicographer and the editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, called bullshit on Cassidy in a post on his blog and here on Wordie. Our own beloved sionnach weighs in as well.

It’s not exactly bareknuckles–this is Wordie, we try to be civilized–but it’s edifying to hear from the pros about what constitutes proper lexicography. I’d like to hear Cassidy’s response (Barrett isn’t the only one to find fault), but as far as I can tell he hasn’t responded to his critics, on Wordie or anywhere else.

Wordie hearts vajayjay

Stephanie Rosenbloom of the The New York Times has an excellent piece about the word “vajayjay,” a euphemism for vagina coined on “Grey’s Anatomy” and popularized by Oprah Winfrey.

There was some gnashing of teeth on Wordie when vajayjay was first listed a few months ago, but the word fills a linguistic void, according to Rosenbloom: There are a slew of lighthearted euphemisms for male genitalia (enough to constitute a Monty Python song), but fewer for the female equivalent, and fewer still that aren’t vulgar or sexist.

Rosenbloom takes a silly word as an occasion to talk to some serious linguists and writers on some interesting topics. Well worth the read.