December 28, 2012

Words of the Month - The Game is Afoot!

        Coming up soon on January 6 is Sherlock Holmes's birthday.  If this were a blog about detective fiction instead of fantasy I could compare some of the many versions of
Holmes that have come out as movies and television shows in the past few years.  But although this is not supposed to be a detective blog and I'll try not to wander too far off-topic, I can at least offer Holmes the tribute of a few vital words from his genre.

detect - Detect comes from the Latin for "uncovered, exposed," so a detective is one who uncovers hidden things.  And what do Sherlock Holmes and a stegosaurus have in common?  The Latin tegere "to cover" from which detect derives is the same as that in stegosaurus, which means "lizard that is covered by a roof," from its back plates that look like roof tiles.

murder - A word that goes right back to Old English, murder was "secret or unlawful killing," as opposed to killing someone right out in the open, which was perfectly fine.
(The victim's family might still exact vengeance or compensation, but the killer's honor was unsullied as long as he was up-front about it all.)  But it's because murder is hidden that it needs to be uncovered - detected.

victim - Originally a victim was a "living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power" (making the phrase "sacrificial victim" redundant).  By the 1650's, over a century later, the meaning of a "person who is hurt or killed by another" was found (making it thereafter necessary to specify when a victim is sacrificial).

alibi - This is quite simply the Latin for "elsewhere" or "another place," so an alibi is when the detective asks "Where were you on the night of July 19, 1953?" and you reply triumphantly, "Elsewhere!"  You might hear the word alibi used for a proof of innocence that doesn't involve being "elsewhere," but that isn't correct.

culprit - The abbreviation cul. prit was short for Culpable: prest (d'averrer nostre bille) meaning "Guilty: ready (to prove our case)"  These were the Anglo-French opening words said by a prosecutor to open a trial.  Apparently the phrase cul prit was mistakenly interpreted by English speakers as an address or reference to the defendent.

        Actually, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never tells us Sherlock's birthday, but if it was January 6, 1854, as Christopher Morley claims, Sherlock will soon be 159!  Laurie R. King, on the other hand, places his birth year as 1861.  And of course you could argue that he was really born in 1887, the year of the publication of A Study in Scarlet.
  Happy New Year!

[Pictures: "This money is not upon the list, is it?" woodcut from Bucholz and the Detectives by Allan Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"He was lying in bed with froth about his mouth and a ghastly look on his face," woodcut from The Poisoner and the Detectives by Pinkerton, 1879 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
"The audacity of a professional thief," woodcut from Professional Thieves and the Detective by Pinkerton, 1880 (Image from Criminal Minds at Work and Internet Archive).]


Nan said...

Perhaps a block print of The Giant Rat of Sumatra is in order?

Happy New Year, Anne.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Try this post for a possible Giant Rat of Sumatra:

Nan said...

Ha ha! Perfect choice. See you at the NOS meeting.