Monday, June 15, 2009

I don't know where we got the word "shamus" for "private detective."

I've never been a Nielsen viewer, and that's probably a good thing, because I'd hate to feel responsible for the death of all those new shows I'm not watching. I'm so out of touch with TV programming that I still think of "Two and a Half Men" as a new show; I've never watched a single episode. I've never seen "The Hills," and don't understand why those people are on magazine covers. I've even gotten to the point where I'm no longer surprised when I don't know who either the host or the band is on "Saturday Night Live."

If there were a way to reduce my cable bill by canceling the channels I don't want, I could save a lot of money. I'd wind up with about five channels, and if I were really strapped, I could take it down to two: MSNBC (which is on for much of the day as white noise) and Turner Classic Movies.

Turner Classic Movies is so reliable that I don't even bother with the TV listings most nights (except for Thursdays, when I do watch "The Office" and "30 Rock." Oh, and now I'm hooked on "So You Think You Can Dance," dammit. But I digress). Last night, after I got home from the matinee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the post-opening weekend cast gathering, I just turned on TCM, which was running a Howard Hawks film festival: To Have and Have Not, followed by The Big Sleep.

The movie of The Big Sleep doesn't make a lot of sense unless you've read the book. The filmmakers were too nervous about making the drugs-and-pornography motives clear. But the movie is incredibly stylish, Bogart and Bacall never looked better, and it's full of lines that are simply immortal ("You're not very tall, are you?" "Well, I try to be.").

It's also the source of today's point of ignorance, because Marlowe and several others refer to him as a "shamus," meaning a private detective. They pronounce the word "SHAM-us," while the more common pronunciation is SHAY-mus, as in Séamus, the Irish version of James. One theory I found for the use of "shamus" to mean "private detective" posits that it was originally a slang word for a New York policeman, as so many of them were Irishmen named Séamus, and that the word eventually came to be used as for a private investigator.

Nothing about that makes sense to me. First, most of the Irish in New York were quick to anglicize their names, which is why my own family tree is full of Jameses and Edwards, rather than Séamuses and Éamonns. Second, police officers have always been proud and protective of their official standing, and I can't see them taking kindly to the use of any term to mean both real police and private detectives. I can't think of any other term used to mean both "cop" and "private eye." Maybe "dick" for "detective," could be either public or private. And if "shamus" is "Séamus," why does everyone in The Big Sleep say shammus?

Anyone have any definitive knowledge about this, or at least a reference that's more than speculation?


AnswerGirl said...

My friend Dan Freedman goes old-school with this, from Merriam-Webster: "perhaps from Yiddish "shames" (shammes); from a jocular comparison of the duties of a sexton and those of a store detective."

Seems more plausible to me...

Larry said...

You mentioned The Office. I've seen it twice. My daughter, 19, and her friends love it. I don't get it. What do you find about it that is appealing?

AnswerGirl said...

Comedy's always idiosyncratic; things strike you as funny or they don't, and it's impossible to explain to anyone why we find something funny. I think "The Office" works or doesn't work depending on whether you find the character of Michael Scott funny, and whether you identify with any of the other characters in the office.

Thank goodness, I never had an office manager or a boss like Michael Scott, but I recognize some of his personality traits: the inability to draw the line between professional and personal lives, the self-deluding vanity, the obsession with the minor in avoidance of the major.

Not, of course, that I have any of those faults myself...

larry said...

Funny. I work in the environment you described. I guess I find it tragic instead of humorous. :-)