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.


  1. I quite like holistic detectives. They may obsess over tiny, seemingly unimportant details, and rack up massive expenses without apparently doing anything, but when you take into consideration the fundamental interconnectedness of all things then they're not actually a bunch of cant peddling charlatans, they are in fact brilliant.

    1. What I like about holistic detectives is that, even if you're not really sure why you're consulting with them, they'll always find a case for you ... something vague and intangible that they still need to investigate, which is as enterprising as it is profitable.

      And it's nearly always some kind of allergy - the Chinese did it, in the dining room, with the MSG.

  2. Detective; "having the character or function of detection". I always use 'detectable' in that useage.
    Detectable can also be used as a noun. i.e. Shortened form of Detective Constable.

    1. Having not thought about it, my other self enlightened me. A person "having the character or function of detection" is a detective. This leads to another point. A person using a metal detector could be called a metal detective; but in fact he is called a metal detectorist. A coin that is capable of being detected, is described as being detectable.

    2. Ha! The rank of 'detectable' or, as it's known in Australia, 'constative'.

      And you're right, of course - 'detectorist' gets its very own entry in the OED. They obviously consider themselves too cool to be associated with the detectives of the bog-standard investigatory kind.

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