The Language of Spy and Detective Stories
Shadowy spies, brilliant detectives, danger and action. The language of spy and mystery thrillers has always been a source of captivation for readers, sometimes even affecting the world of spycraft itself.
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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: clandestine words. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon, Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Shadowy spies, brilliant detectives, danger and action. The language of spy and mystery thrillers has always been a source of captivation for readers, sometimes even affecting the world of spycraft itself. Today, Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski are here to look at the contributions and popularizations of some of the genre's biggest names.
Peter Sokolowski: I think a lot of people think of the dictionary as being primarily literary document. Recording words from literature. And I think in some ways that was part of the idea. I think Samuel Johnson, who was himself a great poet, I think he thought of his dictionary as a literary document. Certainly it reads like a literary document.
Ammon Shea: Yeah, he was famous for just drawing thousands of literary citations from his memory.
Peter Sokolowski: From his own memory.
Ammon Shea: Right. He just kind of plucking them out from a memory palace.
Peter Sokolowski: Spencer, Milton, Shakespeare, and it's clear, of course, that we associate words with authors and some authors invent words. And there are categories of some of the most popular writers of English who have words that we associate with them. And one of the biggest genres is spy fiction or detective fiction. And you really can't talk about this without talking about Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes. Stories that I love and read and in some ways were sort of responsible for awakening my specific interest in language. Because when I started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, I was 11 or something, and I noticed immediately there were a lot of long words and a lot of long sentences, and that was that Victorian prose. And it really made me work. And I loved the work of it because the stories were short and there was always a point and an interesting mystery or whatever. But I remember I learned a word that I still remember to this day. The word valetudinarian. Our definition of valetudinarian is "a person of a weak or sickly constitution, especially one who's chief concern is his or her ill health." In other words, a person who has some good reason to be that way. It sent me to the dictionary for sure. And I've never forgotten that word. And it comes from a story called "The Sign of Four." And one of the characters, a very colorful character that has this statement, "my health is somewhat fragile. I am compelled to be a valetudinarian." I've never forgotten it. It's such a colorful word for a colorful character in a colorful story. So, it made me think of other words like that. Words that you associate with detective fiction. So, another one is one, of my favorite stories was The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Ammon Shea: Yeah. Great story.
Peter Sokolowski: And in that, there's this document that begins the whole mystery, document from some 150 years before Sherlock Holmes, and they use this word goyal. So here's the sentence describing the curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles, "these though known for their valor and their breed. The hounds were whimpering in a cluster at the head of a deep dip or goyal." G-O-Y-A-L. And a Goyal is, the definition, that means "a ravine or a gully." So, it's a dip in the terrain, a steep narrow valley, and it comes from a French term. And again, an oddball word that I've never encountered anywhere else, and I've never forgotten it. So, and there's another one, which is the word gooseberry, \GOOSS-bur-ee\ in British kind of pronunciation or \GOOSS-bair-ee\. Of course, gooseberry is a kind of berry, but there's another definition. And interestingly, it's not in our current dictionaries, but it is in Webster's Second, the big Unabridged Dictionary.
Ammon Shea: From 1934.
Peter Sokolowski: Of 1934. That has a collection of obsolete words, more than we do in our contemporary dictionaries. And this other older meaning, it had the sense of "an indulgent chaperone." And it was used in the TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles when another character says to Dr. Watson, "you'd make a very civil gooseberry, but no, I have to go alone." In other words, you can't come and protect me or watch over. I need to do this and meet, as it turns out, a woman alone. So, gooseberry again, a word in such an unusual situation. A word that I'll never forget, but there's something else, which is this word deduction. And everyone uses that word to associate Sherlock Holmes's method. So, the definition of deduction is "the deriving of a conclusion by reasoning, specifically, inference in which the conclusion about particulars follows necessarily from general or universal premises." And so, this is what Holmes does. He takes these clues and he comes to a conclusion about them. The odd thing about this term deduction, which is the way he refers to it in the stories is that scholars of logic actually also use the term induction. And induction kind of means the inverse, which means to say deriving the generalized conclusion from particular clues, which is actually more frequently what he does because you see little isolated clues and then you come to a conclusion from them.
However, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, he always and only uses the term deduction to refer to both induction and deduction. And I want to give a shout out to Maria Konnikova who wrote the great book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, who addresses the logic behind a lot of his conclusions and also addresses the plain fact that Doyle didn't make this distinction. He just used deduction to mean both
Ammon Shea: Right. Where were his stories originally published?
Peter Sokolowski: They were serialized in The Strand magazine, which is a London publication. And that's one of the reasons they were short stories.
Ammon Shea: Do you have a feeling that the venue in which they were published influenced the word choice?
Peter Sokolowski: That's a good point. I'm sure it did. Doyle was a medical doctor and he was writing in the voice of a medical doctor, Dr. Watson. So, he wanted to appear professional and appear like a gentleman, but he also was appealing to this idea of the gothic.
Ammon Shea: It's still newspaper writing.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, and it was journalism. Right? And also written very fast.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: And some people point out that some of the Sherlock Holmes stories have a lot of gaps of logic in them. And some of them aren't really even mysteries at all. There's this one word that is not in the story, as far as I know, but when the Robert Downey Jr. films of Sherlock Holmes came out, I noticed there were three different reviews that all use the same word, which was ratiocination. This means "the process of exact thinking or reasoning," and it comes from rational thought. And it's a fancy word that journalists turn to when discussing either Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock. People who are known for their intense logic. And there's another group of terms that come from The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is moor. The moor, the famous moor, the scary place, but there's also the mire and the mere. And these come from the term mer in French. So mire would be a bog or a marsh.
Ammon Shea: He also has grimpen in The Hound.
Peter Sokolowski: The Grimpen Mire! Right. These are all in there. And there's another word that comes to mind regarding deduction and Sherlock Holmes's processes. One of the stories he explains to Watson, "if I were to tell you my conclusion, it would shock you. But if I told you every step along the way, the logic of my reasoning, you would find it unremarkable." He said, "if you take away all of the steps and only present the question and the answer, then you have a startling, if possibly meretricious effect." And meretricious is an interesting word. Comes from the Latin word that means prostitutes.
Ammon Shea: And it had that meaning "of or relating to prostitutes"...
Peter Sokolowski: Yes.
Ammon Shea: ... in the 19th and 18th centuries.
Peter Sokolowski: Which means either "showy" or "unwholesome," but also it's the same root as the word merit, which is to say something that is earned or something that others pay for. And meretricious in this case, I think he meant a kind of cheap thrill coming from this demonstration of his powers. But anyway, those are some of the words I associate with Sherlock Holmes story.
Ammon Shea: But there's also elementary, which is...
Peter Sokolowski: Of course.
Ammon Shea: Kind of, got into the public. I mean, we see how words become associated with specific figures and specific authors. It's just because of the use. It is such a distinctive use.
Peter Sokolowski: Yes. And it has to do with his reasoning. Right? He says, "my reasoning is elementary, my dear Watson." Actually, he never says the words "elementary, my dear Watson" together. He does say "my dear Watson," he does say "elementary," but he doesn't say them together.
Ammon Shea: So, it's like "play it again, Sam."
Peter Sokolowski: "Play it again, Sam," which is never said in the movie.
Ammon Shea: Right. Never said in Casablanca.
Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. After the break, Peter and Ammon, we'll be back with more words of intrigue and adventure. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public media.
Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at email@example.com.
Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England public media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.
Now, there are other great authors, of course. And one of them being John le Carre, the great author who just recently died. What's interesting about his novels and his use of language is that there was something so real about them that they kind of blended into the field he wrote about.
Ammon Shea: They influenced it.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, absolutely. Because apparently he's credited with the use of terms like honey trap to mean to lure an agent or a source with the promise of sex or to use an agent who's somehow attractive or flirtatious. But the phrase in from the cold, coming in from the outside, from outside of the warmth of whatever community you're talking about, whether it's political or organizational, but of course his novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, popularized that phrase. He just invented these terms. And he said later that he invented them because he had worked for the British secret service and therefore could not use the real words that were used because he knew he would be censored if he used the real term. So, he invented terms and he said, it's not that they were the real terms. It's that they seemed authentic.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: It's not that they were authentic.
Ammon Shea: Which is very hard to do.
Peter Sokolowski: And that's why he was a great writer, you know? So, terms like babysitter was a spy who remains out of sight in order to watch another one, or the term chicken feed to mean the less-important information just to gain trust of a source and say, it's verifiable, but it's actually not that important. Or the term lamplighter to refer to someone who's a surveillance agent. Moscow rules from Smiley's People or from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which means the secret codes. But then there are others that are really significant, like the term mole.
Ammon Shea: Mole.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And which as far as is known, was popularized by Le Carre and is used universally now to refer to an embedded agent.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: That's kind of amazing that this comes from literature into the field rather than the other way around.
Ammon Shea: Right. It's almost always the other way around.
Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.
Ammon Shea: And a lot of times we see cases where somebody is credited with having invented a word, but it's only because that particular author has-
Peter Sokolowski: Sure.
Ammon Shea: ... more attention paid to them than say some of his or her contemporaries were lesser known.
Peter Sokolowski: Right. And it's true that we do have evidence of others using the term mole before Le Carre, but none of them were such spectacular successes. So, it's partly because of the popularity of his books that made it kind of common vocabulary. He used other words that we understand, like the word assassin or the word spook, referring to a spy. But that's all kind of general vocabulary. It's just amazing that you can kind of create a whole world with these descriptive terms and evoke a reality, and again, that's the art of it. I mean, that's sort of what Fleming does too, right? Ian Fleming.
Ammon Shea: With Chitty Chitty, Bang, Bang, you mean?
Peter Sokolowski: Which is a great piece of work. I love Chitty Chitty, Bang, Bang. But no, of course, the James Bond series had, in some ways its own vocabulary and some of them were familiar with them in a word like martini, of course, but then there was spectre. The bad guys for this organization known as Spectre. And spectre is an English word that refers to a ghost or a goblin and has the same root as speculate or inspect, which has to do with vision or seeing. But spectre in the James Bond world stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, which sounds like it's shoehorned into that.
Ammon Shea: Yeah.
Peter Sokolowski: Just like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. I don't even know what U.N.C.L.E. stands for, but whatever it was, it was preposterous.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: But there's another interesting word or two, one is quantum was the title of a short story by Fleming, "The Quantum of Solace." The film called Quantum of Solace has nothing to do with his story, but it was a term used by Fleming. Quantum, meaning a small amount or an amount from the Latin and the term kulturny, spelled with a K, which is a Russian term that we'd actually don't enter into our dictionaries. But in the Cold War, this was a real word that was well enough known that, not only did Fleming use it in From Russia with Love, but it was used in the film of From Russia with Love. Basically, it just meant cultured or civilized, a person of good manners who knows about art, for example. And so, the honey trap, as it were in the film version of From Russia with Love is asked, "could you flirt or make yourself available to this man", this attractive spy and her response is "if he is kulturny." So in other words, if he's civilized, if he has good manners and I just thought, well, that's interesting because that clearly meant that in 1963 or whatever, the filmmakers thought that word was well enough known to the English speaking world-
Ammon Shea: Right, it's unglossed.
Peter Sokolowski: ... they could just drop it into a film.
Ammon Shea: Right. One of the words that I thought was interesting with Fleming was that he has been on a number of occasions, credited with having introduced to the word ninja.
Peter Sokolowski: Right.
Ammon Shea: Into English in 1964, it's in his novel You Only Live Twice. And it does appear in other places; in 1962, two years before, there's an article written in The Times of India, in 1963, the journal Japan Quarterly had an article titled "The Invisible Men," and they used the word ninja repeatedly. So, these certainly predate Fleming's use of it, but one of the things interesting is that he was at various times involved with British service.
Peter Sokolowski: Like Le Carre.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: They both kind of worked in that world.
Ammon Shea: Right. It is not a real stretch to think that he may have had exposure to a journal like Japan Quarterly for instance, or he would have known where to look. And so I think it's highly likely that he would have read it in one of these types of sources and then just used it. But quite honestly, I'm sure that the novels of Ian Fleming were read quite a bit more than the quarterly issues of Japan Quarterly in 1962 or 3. And so we credit him or he is credited with having introduced this word though.
Peter Sokolowski: And yet it's an ancient tradition. The Japanese edamame must be an ancient word. I noticed the OED uses the term feudal to refer to the martial art and that Merriam-Webster, we say, "ancient Japanese martial arts." It's just interesting to me that, that word for something that has become generalized to mean, so many things to refer to either something that's surreptitious or secret, but it is a fascinating thing to think that such an ancient idea only entered English in the 1960s.
Ammon Shea: Right.
Peter Sokolowski: And it's kind of amazing. The word itself is like a spy.
Ammon Shea: We can credit Fleming with having given it the initial burst of popularity so that it had a foothold. I think if he hadn't written about it, it's entirely possible the word wouldn't have caught.
Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. I mean, he was enormously popular. Needless to say, James Bond is enormously popular. The interesting thing about the word spy itself is that it comes from a French word, espier, which means the same thing, to spy. But the French word has a Germanic etymology. It comes from Francique, which is the dialect called Franconia. And so the French word that English borrowed to mean spy was itself a Germanic word in disguise. I find that the word itself, having gone through these transformations, sort of embodies what it means in a way that it is kind of deeper than most words.
Ammon Shea: Does the Academy Francais have anything to say about that?
Peter Sokolowski: Well, it's a well-tested French word. So there's no problem about that. But what the Academy Francais certainly has plenty of words from Germanic tribes that influenced French. Especially the Northern part of France, but spy is a word that is in disguise.
Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.