Murder mystery

Last weekend was ‘Agatha Christie Weekend’ here, the town where the much loved murder mystery writer spent most of her life and which is also the location of her grave. It seems only right to pay homage to the queen of crime by unravelling some of the word mysteries out there.

Firstly, mystery itself is quite mysterious. It originates from the Greek myein, which mean ‘to close, shut’ and comes from the same family as mute. It seems like a big step from this word to the current mystery, meaning ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’.

But the Greek term gave way to other Greek words: mystes, ‘one who has been initiated’, and mysterion, ‘secret rite or ceremony’. In a mysterion, a new priest would be initiated and become a mystes. He would have to keep his lips shut, that is, refrain from revealing the secrets of the initiation ceremony to others. From there, the word went through the usual journey of Latin and Old French before entering English in the 14th century. We also borrowed the word mystic from the same root.

Murder, on the other hand, is an open-and-shut case. It is of Germanic origin, with the original Old English term being morthor. It can be traced way back to an Indo-European root, whose descendents gave Sanskrit mará and Latin mors. Those who studied romance languages in school will recognise the cognates muerte in Spanish and mort in French. All of which mean ‘death’.

What’s more enigmatic is blue murder as in to cry blue murder, ‘to make an extravagant and noisy protest’. Why should murder have a colour? Does blue here refer to cold, as in murder in cold blood? Or is the crier screaming until they’re blue in the face?

There are a number of theories out there. One suggests that since another variant of the phrase is to cry bloody murder, blue here is a minced oath, a polite way of avoiding swearing by using another word that sounds quite similar.

Alternatively, in the 17th century, blue was used to describe someone who was terrified, so to cry blue murder would be to shout loudly with fear or make a terrified protest.

Another theory suggests that blue here refers to blue-blooded royals. Since to murder a royal would by an extremely grave – and difficult – crime, crying blue murder is to accuse someone of a very serious crime, leading to the idea of making a serious protest.

Then there’s the idea that blue can be used as an intensifier, as in blue blazes and blue funk. So the exclaimer is not only screaming about murder, but blue murder, hence the extravagance and noisiness of the protest.

But my favourite theory, whether it’s the right one or not, is that blue murder is a literal translation of the French minced oath: morbleu. When something terrible happened, the French could exclaim ‘mort Dieu!’, meaning ‘God’s death!’. (NB This might seem like a surprising form of blasphemy but it’s actually quite common – zounds, ‘sblood and gadzooks in English came from ‘God’s wounds’, ‘God’s blood’ and ‘God’s hooks’, ie nails on the cross, respectively.) The French avoided saying Dieu by using bleu as a minced oath, just as how sacré Dieu, ‘sacred God’, became sacré bleu. Thus mortbleu would be used as an exclamation of astonishment and English speakers thought it was a good enough phrase to adopt too.

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Red Herring

The expression a red herring can refer to both a dried, smoked herring which has turned red during curing and a false lead or something used to divert attention from the wider issue. So are red herrings inherently deceitful and misleading fish?

Not exactly. The use of red herring to refer to smoked herring – as opposed to white herring or fresh herring – appears in the 15th century. By the 1680s, the fish was used by poachers to throw off a hunting party. They would walk between the hunters and the prey, dragging a red herring across the trail so as to distract the hunting dogs from the scent they were following. The red herring worked especially well since, because of its strong smell, the hunters used the fish when training the dogs. When the dogs then picked up the herring scent, they would follow that trail, giving the poachers the chance to catch the prey for themselves.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a red herring went from denoting the practise of throwing dogs off a hunting trail to throwing anyone off any trail. The expression to draw a herring across the track/trail was known by the 1880s. Now the phrase is most commonly associated with fictional murder hunts and whodunits where red herrings are used to keep the reader from solving the mystery.