Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coming to Terms

Being someone who works closely with words all day long, I’m part of the natural audience for those e-mailings that try to surprise you with extraordinary terms from the English language and unusual backgrounds to common expressions. Rarely do such communications offer gist for The Rap Sheet. But’s history of “shamus”--a word I thought I knew well, from usage--held a couple of interesting tidbits.

First off, I discovered that my pronunciation of this term (as SHAY-muhs) is apparently not the primary choice of linguists. Click here for the preferred articulation.

And here’s the rest of today’s A.Word.A.Day write-up on “shamus”:
1. A private detective.
2. A police officer.

Perhaps from Yiddish shames/shammes (sexton, a caretaker at a synagogue), from Hebrew shamash (servant). The spelling of the word has altered from the influence of the Celtic name Seamus (equivalent to James) as many police officers in the U.S. at the time, especially in New York, were Irish. First recorded use: 1925.

“A private eye is expected to be whip-smart and tough as nails, but if the guy isn’t likable, he’s D.O.A. as a genre hero. So it’s nice to note that Vlodek Elstrom (known as Dek), a shamus from a tumbledown town in northern Illinois who was introduced by Jack Fredrickson in ‘A Safe Place for Dying,’ has lost none of his initial appeal in its sequel ...” Marilyn Stasio, “A Need for Noir,”
The New York Times, Jan. 23, 2009.*
I guess you really can learn something new every day.

* This quotation has been changed to be in accordance with its original appearance. shortened the excerpt in a rather confusing way.

1 comment:

Paul D. Brazill said...

That is good. Thanks for that!