Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What Are Some Other Terms for 'Detective'?

The Man Himself.
(photo by Dynamosquito)


Adjective & noun. Mid-19th century.
[from DETECT + -IVE, after elect, elective, etc.]

A1 adj. Of, pertaining to, or employed in the investigation of things 
apt to elude notice or deliberately concealed, especially of crimes;
having the character or function of detection. M19

A2 adj. [attributive use of the noun.] Describing crime and the detection of criminals. L19

B noun. A police officer or other person whose occupation it is
to investigate crimes by eliciting evidence, information, etc.;
a person engaged in detective work;
the position or rank of a police detective. M19

As a child, I was fascinated with detectives, detective work and detective fiction; it was actually after finishing The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes that I decided it was the career for me. Of continual interest, too, was the array of terms used to describe detectives, particularly those that worked (as I did) in the private sector.

My first professional introduction to this was the question of what exactly a private detective calls himself. For example, the first company I worked for preferred the term professional investigator (even though private detective was the title printed on my ID), and this was the understanding of the initialism P.I, otherwise often read as private investigator. Other terms commonly used by those working in the field are inquiry agent as a general term, and tracing agent and skip tracer for those that specialise in locating people.

For what others call us, there are numerous terms. Private eye is still commonly used, though often only jocularly. An old-fashioned term is dick, a contraction of detective, something I have been called many times over the course of my career, often with a cephalic suffix tacked on for good measure. Another common descriptor in literature is gumshoe, which the OED states is another word for sneaker, and thus refers to a private detective's supposed stealth.

Going back in time, an old-fashioned term for a PI is shamus, used in the 1920s and which Merriam-Webster suggests draws a derogatory comparison between the work of a church sexton and that of a store detective. An even older term is hawkshaw, which is a reference to a detective in the 1863 play The Ticket of Leave Man.

Finally, sleuth is often used to denote someone with a particular skill in detection, often in reference to amateur sleuths or armchair sleuths / detectives. Armchair sleuth can also be used for those that are so brilliant that they need never visit a crime scene to solve a case, as Sherlock Holmes says of his brother Mycroft in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. In real life, however, they're more likely to be the type that shout at the television during episodes of CSI, and assiduously follow televised court cases before concluding that the judge did it in the library with the iPad, and the prosecutor is sleeping with the court stenographer. Case closed.

Not once did I ever burst in on a naked woman with my gun drawn.
And now that I think of it, I never even had a gun.
(image by Will Hart)
Are there any other terms for detective where you're from?

Are there any you particularly like?

Do please prosecute your most deductive comments in the witness box below.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Dessert - A Sweet Etymology

Of course, I may just have chosen to cover dessert so I could gorge myself on photos of delicious food ...
(photo by Ralph Dally)


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[French, use as noun of part participle of desservir clear the table, from des- removal + servir to serve.]

A course of fruit, nuts, sweets, etc., served at the end of a meal.
Also (originally US) a pudding or sweet course.

Regular readers of Lexicolatry might be a little confused by this entry, as surely everything one needs to know about the word dessert has already been covered in the post Is It 'Just Deserts' or 'Just Desserts'? However, no! For the word dessert has its very own fascinating etymological secrets to offer us, namely in that it's derived from the French verb meaning 'to clear the table'.

"Wonderful!" you think, "but how might this gem of knowledge benefit me in any way?" Well, I say just think of the next time you're at a dinner party and the host announces: "Dessert is served!" Ah ha! How humorously oxymoronic! Just think how enamoured all attendees will be as you regale them with the etymology of dessert, perhaps followed by a second course of the desert vs dessert question, and then finished off with a history of, say, chocolate, or biscuits, or perhaps the fact that saying The Sahara Desert is, literally, saying The Desert Desert.

Armed with these lexicological wonders, you need never worry about being invited to a dinner party again.

Oh ... my ... 
(photo by Kimberly Vardeman)
Do please do us the (dis)service of leaving your sweetest comments in the box below.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Is it 'Just Deserts' or 'Just Desserts'?

Someone's just about to get their desserts! Ho ho ho.
(photo by April Bern)


Noun. Middle English.
[Old French, from deservir DESERVE.]

1(a) Deserving, being worthy of reward or punishment. ME

1(b) Merit, excellence, worth. LME

2 An action or quality deserving reward or punishment. Usually in plural. LME

3 Due reward or punishment, something deserved.
Frequently in get one's deserts, have one's deserts, meet with one's deserts, etc. LME

Noo! Not that type of dessert. Nor that type. Rather, this is desert, as in something one deserves, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable just like the dessert of the delicious type, and not like the desert of the sandy type. Yes, that's right; were dealing with three completely separate words. And if you've been writing (or thinking) just desserts, then you're a right proper numpty. Did you know that there are even language bloggers that have been caught out by this, only to be corrected on their own blogs, thus exposing their ignorance to the world after they had put themselves up on a pedestal as some kind of authority on the subject? Now if that's not getting your just deserts, I don't know what is.

Now, to be fair to this blogger that shall remain nameless, many resources acknowledge that, while originally it most definitely was deserts and not desserts, the latter has become so common in modern English as to have become virtually acceptable. But seriously: where is the fun in that? For picky pedants and grumpy grammar goblins around the world, where is the satisfaction in shrugging your shoulders and saying: "Ah sure, but everyone says it like that!" No fun. No fun at all. So remember:

(pronounced as dessert, but spelt as desert)

Just desert
(photo by Ilker Ender)
Do please leave your sweetest comments in the sandbox below.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Derrick - Oil Well & Good

An oil well and derrick


Noun. Early 17th century.
[Derrick, the surname of a noted London hangman floruit 1600.]

1 obsolete. Capitalised as Derrick. A hangman; hanging; the gallows. E17-L18

2 A contrivance for hoisting or moving heavy weights. M18-M19

2(a) NAUTICAL. A tackle used at the outer quarter of the mizzen-mast. M-L18

2(b) A spar or boom set up obliquely, with its head steadied by guys,
and fitted with tackle, originally used on board ship. M18

2(c) A kind of crane with a jib or adjustable arm pivoted to the foot of the central post, deck, or floor. M19

3 A framework erected over an oil-well or similar boring, to support the drilling apparatus. M19

A derrick crane
The Wonder Book of Engineering Wonders (1931)
Well knock me down with a barrel o' crude! It seems that for the past thirty years or so, I've been labouring under a cloud of confusion as to what a derrick is. Specifically, what I thought is a derrick isn't, and what it's not is what I thought it was. It's all very confusing ...

So, firstly, let's get what a derrick isn't out of the way: it's not one of those odd, slightly creepy bowing constructions that you see tirelessly pumping away in deserts. Those are oil pumps, and they're variously called pumpjacks, sucker rod pumps, grasshopper pumps, Big Texans, thirsty birds, horsehead pumps and nodding donkeys. They are not, however, called derricks, even though many of you (including me) thought they were.

So what's a derrick? Broadly speaking, it's one of two things: a type of crane, or the framework that supports a drilling operation. Conveniently, both types are almost as recognisable as the nodding donkeys we thought were called derricks, and so from this day forth there need no longer be any confusion.

This is not a derrick
(photo from Geograph.co.uk)
But why is a derrick called a derrick? Well this it where it gets a bit dark, because Thomas Derrick was a notable and enthusiastic executioner in England during the Elizabethan period. Nothing if not diligent, Derrick executed over 3,000 souls during his tenure as the capital's capital carnifex, and was rather innovative in how he did it; whereas any old hangman can sling a rope over a beam, Derrick devised a system of pulleys to gleefully winch his charges aloft. It is the similarity between his pulley system and the framework he used to support it that gives his name to the drilling towers and dockyard cranes.

As for the modern name Derek, this is a variant of Derrick, and can also be spelled Derreck, Derick, Derrok and (for the especially pretentious) Deryck; its origin is the German name Theodoric, meaning 'ruler of the people'. Despite this regal origin, however, it has come to be universally regarded as a very silly name, rhyming as it does with such unsavoury words as sick, tick, hick and ick (as well as a few others that shall not be printed here). Quite possibly, it was Thomas Derrick's silly name that compelled him to be such as ardent executioner, as no one had ever taken him seriously in his life before.

Self-portrait of some bloke called 'Derek'

Did you ever confuse a nodding donkey with a derrick?

Do you know a Derek that's a bit of a donkey?

Do please bore us with your most well-thought-out comments in the box below.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Dermato - The Skinny on Skin Words

A woman's bare neck
A model with skin
Photo by Gisela Giardino


Combining form. Before a vowel also dermat-.
Greek derma, dermat-, skin, hide, leather. Before a vowel also dermat-.

Relating to the skin.

When you think about it, skin is really important. Now I mean really important. Without it, we'd be a mess; all leaky and ick (and humans are pretty leaky as it is). Therefore, it's appropriate that English retains a proper prefix in dermato- for skin-related words. There's also dermo- and derma-. Really, anything that starts with derm is probably to do with the skin.

For example, dermabrasion is a medical treatment in which the superficial layers of skin are removed with (and I don't like the sound of this) "a rapidly revolving abrasive tool". There is also dermatoplasty, which is the surgical replacement of damaged or destroyed skin, and dermatosis, which is any non-inflammatory disease of the skin. These medical terms probably all come under the umbrella of dermatology, the science that deals with skin and skin disorders (the practitioner of which is, of course, a dermatologist).

Talking of science, one particularly interesting skin word is dermatoglyphics, which is defined as the science that deals with "skin patterns (e.g fingerprints), especially of the hands and the feet". Did you know, for example, that humans are not the only creature to possess fingerprints? A number of other species have them too, especially those that climb trees. In fact, the fingerprints of a koala are so similar to a human's as to be virtually indistinguishable. How's that for a dermatoglyphic fact?

And lastly, if you're not interested in talking medicine or science, but still want a good skinny chat, consider dermal or the considerably less appealing dermoid, which mean 'of the skin' and 'skin-like' respectively.

Do please leave your most topical comments in the box below.