Appointment with Words: where does Agatha Christie feature in the OED?
Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the death of Agatha Christie, a doyenne of the whodunnit, or as the celebrated humourist Ogden Nash put it, a murdermongress. In a career spanning 50 years, she wrote over 60 detective novels, as well as collections of short stories and plays. In addition, she indulged her romantic side by writing a number of novels in the romance genre, under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
My own love affair with all things Christie began when I borrowed Cards on the Table from the school library. Based around a murder committed during a bridge game, it was particularly memorable, at least for me, as it represented the bridge score cards in facsimile form. It also made me want to learn how to play the card game. Since that day, I have worked my way through all of her novels (some multiple times), some of her plays, watched the film and TV adaptations, while also managing not to give away the identity of the murderer in The Mousetrap.
Spats over gumshoes
Christie’s world is not that of the hard-boiled gumshoe, who pads the streets looking for clues and dispensing wisecracks a-plenty. Indeed, her two most celebrated creations – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – are quite the opposite. The fastidious Belgian Poirot is much more of an armchair detective, who is disdainful of the mania (as he sees it) to hunt for clues and visit crime scenes. Instead, he much prefers to exercise his legendary grey matter (or grey cells as he puts it), and put his faith in order and method.
In fact, he solves one mystery, The Clocks, entirely from the comfort of his armchair.
Similarly, the typical image of Christie’s other famous creation, Miss Marple, must be of her sitting in her chintzy drawing room in St Mary Mead, watching the world go by with her eagle eyes and sharp mind, the ever-present knitting in her lap. Her first appearance in print, in The Thirteen Problems, also set her out as an armchair detective, as she manages to solve a number of mysteries after hearing the facts at a dinner party.
Commit crime, will travel
But what of Christie’s linguistic achievements? Many of the Agatha Christie quotations in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary came from the reader’s pen of Marghanita Laski, an almost-contemporary of Christie who read crime fiction avidly. Although she is cited well over 400 times in the OED, only one of these quotations is the first of the entry – Christie is the first cited author for the word sit, as in an abbreviation for sitting room (from her 1937 novel Dumb Witness). This entry has not yet been revised, so there is no guarantee that she will remain the first cited author. However, an author needn’t be an ardent neologist to be linguistically interesting – there is more to literary life than being the first to use a particular word or phrase.
A good number of the words for which she is cited in the OED (although this is by no means an exhaustive list) illustrate the crime world her characters inhabit. Blackmail, bad penny, detect, murder, natural causes all contain Christie quotations. All are stock in trade for the perpetrators and victims of her novels. But there is more to it than that. While St Mary Mead is probably close to the ideal of the quintessential sleepy English village (albeit one which rivals its more modern counterpart Midsomer given the amount of crime it experiences), with its vicarage, post office, and village fetes, Christie often travelled much further afield with the settings for her books. Many of her books are at least partially set in exotic locations, particularly the Middle East, which was probably influenced by Christie’s own travels in that area with her archaeologist second husband to Baghdad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
Planes, Trains, and Boats
Two of Christie’s novels are set on glamorous trains – the Blue Train, and the Orient Express – and rail travel features in many of her short stories, as well as in the novel 4.50 from Paddington (a less exotic trip than that of the Orient Express, it is fair to say). Air travel also gets a look in, again at a time when it wouldn’t have been anything like a humdrum way to travel. Her 1935 novel Death in the Clouds presents a murder committed on board a plane bound from Paris to Croydon. Even Miss Marple, who has spent much of her life in St Mary Mead or the very close environs gets in on the act with a trip to the Caribbean. Poirot, for all his travels, is distinctly unfond of sea travel, and when he is forced into such journeys, he does so most unwillingly. Indeed in Death in the Clouds, he describes how the suffering he endures on voyages leaves him without his prized mental faculties.
Hardly surprising then that many of the words Christie is cited for in the OED are a curious mix representing these different worlds. The clothing she mentions takes us all around the world from agal to balbriggan, via polo jumpers (a rather more old-fashioned term for polo neck) and espadrilles, with an albert chain and some mink (it was the 1920s) thrown in for good measure. Characters travel by gufa (a type of round boat, made from straw and palm, used in Mesopotamia), they stay in khans, they have Bukhara rugs, they drink tea from Rockingham and Davenport china, and they sit on Knole sofas. The OED cites Christie in its entry for all of these items.
Les mots français
One of the most remarkable areas where one finds Christie quoted in the OED is in phrases of French origin. As Poirot is a Walloon rather than a Fleming, it is most often found in the novels and short stories where he is the protagonist, and such phrases pepper his dialogue. He is often heard to utter mild oaths such as ma fois, mille tonnerres, and sapristi, and often refers to Hastings rather affectionately as mon ami (it seems so much more affectionate than the literal English translation). He also talks of secret de Polichinelle (an open secret), mauvais sujet (a bad lot), and how the killer in one of his cases seems to kill pour le sport (for the fun of it), and, as mentioned above, suffers from mal de mer. It’s a rather good way of reminding that us although he made his home in England, at heart he is still a proud Belgian.