May 2, 2013

Case File #013.05.02: SLEUTH

Sleuth was derived from the Old Icelandic noun slodh, which meant “track” or “path,” and when the Middle English word first came into use in the fourteenth century, it essentially meant “the trail of a person or animal.” By the time sleuth passed into Early Modern English in the late fifteenth century, it was primarily used in compounds, and the word sleuthhound was one of the most common. As the detective in you may have already deduced, sleuthhound literally meant “trail dog,” and it was used to refer to the types of dogs, such as bloodhounds, that are used to track down other animals and people. But around 1850, American English speakers started using sleuthhound to refer to police detectives in addition to the canine trackers, and about twenty-five years later, the word was finally shortened back to sleuth and now used in reference to detectives of only the Homo sapiens variety. Incidentally, the verb sense of sleuth—that is, “to act as a detective” or “to search for something”—didn't show up until the early twentieth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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