The Word Detective investigates the word ‘detective’
When I retired from the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 several newspapers picked up on the ‘news’ to inform their public that the OED’s chief word detective was hanging up his boots, calling it a day, or picking up his P45. So it seemed natural enough, when I came to write The Word Detective, that I choose this for my title. I should have realised the response from one or two of my colleagues on the great Dictionary, attuned to playing with words from dawn till dusk: “How can you write a whole book on the word detective?” Groan, followed by several more groans.
Nevertheless, the word detective is indeed of interest in its own right, and its story is worth investigating. We know the verb to detect ‘to uncover, discover’ and its stable-mate detection in English from the late Middle Ages, when we borrowed them from Latin dētegĕre: new words perhaps heralding a more investigative frame of mind than the older uncover and its synonyms from ‘Middle’ Middle Ages medieval French.
How old is ‘detective’?
But what about detective? According to the OED the word just didn’t occur to us in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, from which we infer that we had no pressing need for it. We had plenty of other words to fill the void left by its absence.
One of the things I tried to stress throughout The Word Detective is that words are typically coined or created to meet a need in society. Our culture shifts slightly, and so we want a new word to describe this new state.
Until the eighteenth century, the long arm of the law in English towns and cities was represented by parish constables. The first professional thief-takers in Britain were the Bow Street Runners (1749-1839). The Victorian public grew familiar with their successors, the Peelers, constables of the London Metropolitan police force created by Sir Robert Peel’s reforms in 1829. But these weren’t plainclothes detectives.
At the same time, things were happening in Paris. Eugène Vidocq established the first private detective agency in 1811 – the plainclothes Brigade de la Sûreté (he didn’t think to use the word detective). In Boston the first detective force was created in 1846.
With all this police activity happening around the middle of the nineteenth century, we need to take a look at what was happening to our vocabulary. As you will remember, we have used the words detect and detection since the Middle Ages, often in the context of thief-taking. What about detective itself?
Solving the mystery
Words sometimes edge into the language. The OED finds detective used first as an adjective (incorporating our productive –ive suffix), not a noun, in 1843. Bang at the right time (theories vindicated in this case and on current evidence). In that year the popular Chambers’s Magazine informs us that:
Intelligent men have been recently selected to form a body called the ‘detective police’ … at times the detective policeman attires himself in the dress of ordinary individuals.
And how soon was it before we wore this down to the noun detective to describe the plainclothes men and later women of the Metropolitan force? Again, according to the OED it was a few years later, in 1850, in William Henry Wills’s essay ‘The modern science of thief-taking’, in an early issue of Dickens’s Household Words (13 July p. 368):
To each division of the Force is attached two officers, who are denominated ‘detectives’.
There is a shriek of nationalistic excitement in the normally sober etymology of the first edition of the OED: ‘The noun has been adopted in modern French from English’ – even though the French had been working on the case with Eugène Vidocq in 1811. But for the lexicographer and social historian, it is great to see the origin of the ‘thing’ and the origin of the ‘word’ more or less coincide in the late 1840s and early 1850s. QED (or CID).
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