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Slip sliding away, or maybe not.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you elucidate me on the origin of the word “sleuth” for a detective? UK TV has recently had programs concerning female detectives (e.g., Miss Marple) and calls them female “sleuths.” Although I have heard the term before, I am intrigued as to its origin. Latin and Greek and German appear to be ruled out. My Anglo-Saxon, like so much of the rest of me, is no longer what it was. — Graham Chambers.

Tell me about it. I just spent the last half-hour searching both my computer and my Word Detective website because I simply couldn’t believe that I’d never answered a question about “sleuth” before. I had even bypassed your question for about two months because I had seen the subject line “sleuth” and assigned it a mental label of “Done that.” Obviously, this is an episode rich in opportunities for wry and recursive humor, but I have a confession to make that may explain my lapse. I actually hate the word “sleuth.” Always have. No idea why, except that it has always struck me as precious, coy and creepy, the sort of Ned Flanders word that NPR and PBS hosts love. “Sleuth,” simpered Laura Linney, “Sleuth, sleuth, sleuth.”

“Sleuth” as a noun means simply “detective,” or “one employed or engaged in detecting lawbreakers or in getting information that is not readily or publicly accessible” (Merriam-Webster). In common usage, a “sleuth” is rarely a police detective, unless that detective was fired from the force (after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit) despite the fact that he apparently possesses an uncanny knack for tracking down criminal masterminds in less than an hour. A “sleuth” (at least in films and novels) is usually a private detective, often an amateur whose natural detecting brilliance succeeds where all those unimaginative cops fail. Sherlock Holmes was a sleuth; Lenny Briscoe, much as I loved him, was a cop. But Lenny would have made an awesome sleuth.

Interestingly, the original “sleuths” were not even people. Our modern word “sleuth” is actually a short form of “sleuthhound” or “sleuth dog,” meaning a dog, usually a bloodhound or similar breed, originally used in Scotland for tracking and/or pursuing something or someone. The “sleuth” in “sleuthhound” appeared in English around 1200 with the meaning “a track or trail of a person or animal; a definite track or path.” This “sleuth” comes from the Old Norse “slod,” meaning “track or trail.”

“Sleuthhound” was first used in the figurative sense of “pursuer, tracker or detective” in the mid-19th century, but it didn’t immediately take on a law enforcement sense, and a “sleuth” could be on the trail of just about anything (“The West Riding men are sleuth-hounds in pursuit of money,” 1857). The application of “sleuthhound” to police and private detectives seems to have arisen in the US, although figurative uses have always been common on both sides of the Atlantic (“The hunt for it would be engrossing to a literary sleuth-hound,” 1948).

“Sleuthhound” is rarely seen these days, having been largely replaced in the late 1800s by the shorter form “sleuth” (“Goodwin followed at increased speed, but without any of the artful tactics that are so dear to the heart of the sleuth,” O. Henry, 1904). Since the beginning of the 20th century, “sleuth” has also been used as a verb meaning “to investigate something,” sometimes in the form “to sleuth out” meaning “to discover” (“It had been something private he’d sleuthed out, something secret,” 1968), or “to track or follow a person” (“‘Who hired you to sleuth me?’ … ‘You are in error,’ replied Poirot. ‘I have not been sleuthing you.'” Agatha Christie, 1956).


Or maybe it’s just “Achoo!” with a really bad head cold.

Dear Word Detective: Most people, I realize, pronounce “ague” with two syllables; but my mother (probably the only person I ever heard use this word in a sentence) pronounced it with one syllable, to rhyme with “vague” (which makes sense if you think about it). Anyway, it occurred to me that that makes it a near homophone of “ache,” which of course triggered the Word Detective reflex in my keyboard finger. — Charles Anderson.

“Keyboard finger,” singular? You sound like me. I took typing in junior high school, but didn’t pay much attention because I was going to be a disk jockey like Murray the K. Now I hunt and peck all day long.

The way your mother pronounced “ague” does make a lot of sense, and I actually prefer it, although the standard pronunciation is “AY-gyoo.” Maybe she picked up some obscure folk pronunciation at some point. In any case, it’s not a common word, although it was much more popular before we all became mini-doctors via the internet and drug ads. “Ague” is a high fever marked by bouts of severe chills. The pattern of high fever and sweating interspersed with paroxysms of violent chilling and trembling is the signature of malarial infections, though diseases other than malaria can cause similar torment. “Ague” is also used in less dire circumstances to mean simply a severe chill or fit of shivering (“But soon his rhetorick forsook him … A sudden fit of ague shook him, He stood as mute as poor Macleane,” 1753).

“Ague” first appeared in English in the late 14th century, borrowed from the Old French “ague,” meaning “sharp fever,” which in turn was formed from the Latin “acuta,” meaning “sharp” (related to our adjective “acute,” which was first used in a medical sense). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name “ague” was first given to the “burning fever” stage, but later came to be associated with the shivering chills stage because that was the more outwardly dramatic phase of the cycle.

As a somewhat vague term for an extended high fever and chills, “ague” has made high-profile literary appearances in everything from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“Ye schul have a fever terciane, Or an agu, that may be youre bane,” circa 1386) to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (“An Ague very violent; the Fit held me seven Hours, cold Fit and hot, with faint Sweats after it,” 1719). Unfortunately, the age of picky-picky clinical diagnosis seems to have banished such great evocative terms as “ague,” “chilblains” (swelling in the fingers and toes from cold), “apoplexy” (originally a stroke), “catalepsy” (seizures), “consumption” (tuberculosis), and “dropsy” (edema) from the popular lexicon. Even the “lumbago” once issued to every uncle over a certain age has now been driven out of our gossip in favor of the dull “lower back pain.” I blame Doctor Kildare and Ben Casey, personally. Oh well, we’ll always have “pleurisy.” (Been there; it’s awful.)

“Ache,” meaning a dull pain, does sound like your mother’s pronunciation of “ague,” but there’s really no etymological connection. The development of “ache” is murky and complex; the noun and verb were spelled and pronounced differently from each other in Old and Middle English and even in early Modern English. The ultimate source of “ache” is uncertain, but it’s thought to be a proto-Indo-European root having something to do with “guilt,” possibly with a bit of an imitation of a pained groan thrown in.


Little winged pickpocket?

Dear Word Detective: How do we get the word “cupidity” for greed? If anything, it ought to have meant something exactly the opposite of greed, shouldn’t it, since (I suppose) the word is derived from Cupid, the God of love? — Partha Sen Sharma.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. It’s the story of English. It could have been such a nice, orderly language, if only it hadn’t listened to all those ruffians. If only it had sat up straight and not slouched. If only it had played by the rules. And now just look at it. Last week, the Associated Press announced that it would henceforth be accepting the use of “hopefully” as a sentence modifier (e.g., “Hopefully, Bob will get a job”), as opposed to only as an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner” (“Bob arrived at the interview hopefully”). Yes, I know everyone has used it the “new” way for a few hundred years, but some of us have standards. Not me, but some of us do.

Meanwhile, back at the God of Love, yeah, that’s weird, although if you try to buy a piece of cardboard bearing the little chap’s picture in the vicinity of February 14, it’ll cost you, like, four bucks, which would seem to indicate an organic connection twixt Cupid and greed. Cupid was indeed the Roman god of love, the son of Venus and Mercury. Like many Roman gods, Cupid was actually a recycled Greek god, in this case Eros, the Greek god of love and desire. While Eros was (and is) usually portrayed in art and sculpture as a hunky young man, Cupid is usually depicted as a chubby winged infant brandishing a tiny bow and arrows, with which he shoots people, making them fall in love.

The word “Cupid” first appeared in English in the 14th century, drawn from the Latin “cupido,” love or desire, which was rooted in the Latin verb “cupere,” to desire. “Cupidity” arrived in English about a century later, adapted from the French “cupidite,” meaning “passionate desire.” And now things get a little strange. In Latin and French, the family tree of “cupidity” was focused on love and erotic desire. But the earliest written uses of “cupidity” found so far in English employ the word to mean “strong desire for wealth or possessions; greed.” The more general senses of “inordinate desire, ardent longing” made an appearance a bit later, but are now considered archaic. So the only sense of “cupidity” now in accepted use is “avarice; greed; a burning desire for wealth and shiny things,” which is a bit depressing.

How and why the “burning desire for money” meaning of “cupidity” crowded out the “ardent amorous desire” senses is a mystery. Perhaps the fact that “cupidity” is more than simple greed or avarice, something amounting to a psychological fixation, made the “gimme the money” sense especially useful in English.

On a brighter note, in the early 20th century, Cupid made another appearance in popular culture in a form accessible to the humblest citizen. Created as a character by illustrator Rose O’Neill in 1909, the “Kewpie doll,” a chubby baby doll with a twee topknot and a dementedly cheerful expression, was an instant popular sensation. The name “Kewpie” was, of course, a reference to Cupid. Kewpie dolls remained popular well into the 20th century and were frequently awarded as prizes in midway games at carnivals and county fairs.