Say hello to Washington State’s most recently licensed private investigator.
Several of my friends and family have asked how they should refer to me. Gumshoe and dick seem to be the early favorites, thought my podiatrist would probably find flatfoot most appropriate. I decided that for today’s celebratory post, I would investigate (privately, of course) synonyms of detective to see if I could come up with anything fun.
I turned first to current sources, primarily thesaurus.com. I discovered P. I., Sherlock Holmes, agent, bird dog, bloodhound, dick, eavesdropper, eye, flatfoot, gumshoe, peeper, private eye, roper, scout, shadow, shamus, sleuth, snoop, spy, tail, and tec. None of these really resonate with me. For example, I don’t particularly care for Sherlock. Where I grew up, this word most often follows the phrase “no shit” and is not meant as a compliment.
If I were forced to choose from the list, I believe shamus would be my preference. It’s obscure and kind of catchy. Opinions are split regarding its origin. One plausible source is shamas, a Yiddish/Hebrew derived word meaning a beadle or sexton in a synagogue. Another possible origin is the Irish proper name Seamus. The word emerged in the U.S. in the mid-1920s, and the first OED-listed instance is from Flynn’s Magazine, a weekly detective fiction rag. It was published in New York City. Flynn is an Irish surname, and there were by then many thousands of Irish immigrants living in New York. Of course, there were a lot of Jews, too. So who knows.
After examining the current alternatives, I turned to the OED’s historical thesaurus. That’s where I hit pay dirt. I found intracer, one who searches into anything (1475); inseer, one who sees or looks into something, an investigator, inspector, examiner (1532); tracer, one who follows the footprints or track of anything; one who tracks, investigates, or searches out; specifically one whose business is the tracing of missing persons, property, parcels, letters, etc. (1552); and expiscator, an investigator, literally one who “fishes out” (1882).
But my favorite by far is INDAGATRIX, a female searcher or investigator (1653). (Male form, indagator, 1620.) There is an obsolete verb in English, indagate, of whose existence I was totally unaware. However, I use its Spanish cognate, indagar, almost every day. Both are from the Latin indagare, meaning to trace out, search into, or investigate. This is the verb I use every time an attorney tells her client that she will look into, check on, or find out about something. The OED lists various related forms—e.g., indagatory, indagative, indagation, indagacious—none of which got enough of a foothold to survive in today’s English.
Still, even if I don’t put it on my business cards, you can call me…