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).