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Private Eye

Q From Bernd Herrmann: I was just reading about the history of private eye and came across conflicting explanations concerning the term’s origin. Can you help?

A One story you mention links it with the Pinkerton detective agency, the first anywhere, which was founded by Allan Pinkerton in Chicago in the 1850s. His firm’s motto was “We Never Sleep” and his business insignia was an unblinking eye. Pinkerton was an early expert proponent of what we now call public relations — among other tricks publishing dime novels based on his experiences — and used to tell the story that criminals so feared him they called him “The Eye”. It’s easy to see how that might have become associated with all private detectives.

It may well have contributed but the connection is indirect, since private eye came into use several decades after the Pinkerton Agency was in its heyday. The evidence is that the eye part of private eye is a pun derived from private investigator, via the abbreviations PI and private I. It first appears in a story by Raymond Chandler in Dime Detective magazine in June 1938: “We don’t use any private eyes in here. So sorry.”

Private investigator began as a general term for a specialist who was in private practice, as opposed to working for an employer. In the 1880s it was used — as examples — for a veterinary surgeon who had been brought in by a state government to look into an outbreak of cattle disease and for a research botanist working outside the academic system.

Although both private investigator and private eye are closely linked with the US because of stories about hard-boiled gumshoes by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the first examples I’ve found of private investigator being applied to a detective are actually from British authors:

“You’re mistaken,” said his friend. “It’s Windround, the private detective, or Investigator, as he calls himself. He’s just now engaged for my house.” ... “That’s by no means my view of the case, Mr. Pikeham. Please to remember that I’m not one of the detective police; I’m a private investigator.”

The Ringwoods of Ringwood, by Mervyn Merriton, a pseudonym of Henry Coe Coape, 1873. Now forgotten, Coape had a tempestuous life — the eldest son of a rich sugar refiner, he took to writing after he was made bankrupt and was scandalously divorced for adultery (he insisted on bringing his lover on holiday with his wife and himself to Rome, ostensibly as her maid).

I think I have already said in another place that Hewitt’s professional start as a private investigator dated from his connection with the famous will case of Hartley vs. Hartley and others.

The Holford Will Case, in The Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, by Arthur Morrison, 1895. Hewitt was one of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes, who ran a detective agency rather than being a lone wolf. He appeared shortly after Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in The Final Problem in December 1893. Morrison had some success with tales about him in the next decade.

The term private investigator began to be used in the US for a detective from the early 1900s. It was popularised by E Phillips Oppenheim in his tales about Peter Ruff, who was billed as such. Might he have got it from one of his British precursors?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Apr. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 30 April 2011.