For whom the Clue Phone rings.

Dear Word Detective: We’re wondering when the word “detective” was first used. My daughter thought it might have been used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t able to verify that. — M. Holeman.

That’s a good question and a fine hunch. I’m actually mildly surprised, come to think of it, that I’ve never been asked this question before, given the name of this column. On the other hand, I do receive a steady trickle of email from people who gaily disregard the modifier “Word” in “Word Detective” (not to mention the content of my website) and implore me to slip them the secret to a lucrative career as a private detective. Hey gang, improving your reading comprehension is a good place to start.


Quiet, children. Daddy's watching an irregular verb.

“Detective” is an agent noun, a noun which performs the action of the verb on which it is based, in this case the verb “to detect.” A “detective,” in other words, detects. “Detect,” in turn, comes from the Latin verb “detegere,” meaning “to uncover, discover or detect,” and “detegere” itself is a combination of “de” (meaning “un” in this case) and “tegere,” to cover. “Detect” is one of those fairly rare Latin-derived English words that means roughly just what its Latin roots mean and not much more.

“Detective” actually first appeared in English as an adjective in the 1840s, usually in the phrases “detective police” (“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,” 1843) or “detective camera” (a type of small hand camera newly invented at the time). By 1850, “detective police” had been shortened and “detective” was being used as a noun to mean either a member of the police detective bureau or a “private detective” for hire. Conan Doyle had his creation Sherlock Holmes call himself a “consulting detective,” which is a bit classier.

While Sherlock Holmes is without doubt the most famous detective, fictional or real, in history, and certainly popularized the term “detective” in the popular lexicon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cannot be credited with the first use of the term in reference to an individual. That distinction goes to Charles Dickens, who was so fond of the term that he used it twice in his own magazine “Household Words” (“To each division of the Force is attached two officers, who are denominated ‘detectives’,”1850), then again in his novel “Bleak House” (1852). Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, more than thirty years after Dickens had used the term.

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