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Crime Word Origins: From ‘Whodunit’ to ‘Cliffhanger’

If you came of age reading mystery or detective novels, you've probably come across words like "whodunit" and "cliffhanger." But have you ever wanted to know how these terms came about?

By
Arielle John, Writing For ,
A typewriter with the word murder

 

Did you grow up with a love of detective work and a mystery novel always in tow? In the midst of all that crime consumption, you probably picked up on a handful of terms like “whodunit,” and “cliffhanger”—words that are usually associated with crime fiction. If you've ever wondered where those words come from, you've come to the right place.

'Whodunit'

“Whodunit,” pronounced, “who done it,” is another term for “murder mystery.” Accounts of who coined “whodunit” are conflicting. If you check the Google Books Ngram Viewer you could be forgiven for thinking the first documented use was in 1925 in the literary magazine, “The Virginia Quarterly Review.” But, that path is a red-herring (a term we’ll get to in a minute) because sleuthing revealed that the entry is mistaken—a conglomeration of two separate publications. 

In fact, Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and The Guardian all credit Daniel Gordon, a book reviewer for “The American News of Books,” with creating the term in 1930. When faced with the task of writing a review about a standard murder mystery, “Half-Mast Murder,” Gordon deemed the story “a satisfactory whodunit.”  

'Sleuth'

And what about sleuthing? It was a noun first. “Sleuth” arose in the Middle Ages from “sloð,” the Old Norse word for “trail” and described a “track or trail of a person.” The 1872 definition of “sleuth,” meaning “detective,” was derived from “sleuthhound,” a breed of dog similar to a bloodhound that was once common in Scotland and was used for finding the track or trail of a person. The sleuthhound was renowned for its remarkable sense of smell, reportedly having the ability to track thieves solely by the scents of the items they had stolen. “Sleuthhound” was also a nickname for a “keen investigator.”

The definition of 'sleuth,' meaning 'detective,' was derived from 'sleuthhound,' a breed of dog similar to a bloodhound.

Surprisingly, that same Old Norse word “sloð” also gives us the word “slot.” The origin is a bit uncertain, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, one of the original meanings was “a narrow opening into which something else can be fitted,” and if you squint, you can maybe see how that could be related peripherally to the idea of a track or trail. 

If you have ever worked at a newspaper in the United States, you’ll know that the slot is also the position in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped desk where the chief sub-editor sits, and Bill Walsh, who was a Washington Post copy editor who wrote books such as “The Elephants of Style” and “Lapsing Into a Comma,” ran a popular language website called The Slot. Maybe you can think of copy editors as sleuthing for errors and solving language mysteries. But back to crime!

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