Private Investigators have been called many things over the years. Some have been flattering, others not. Some have withstood the test of time and are still in use today mostly in slang language. Others have gone the way of the dodo bird.
Just for the fun of it, here’s a short list of some the nicknames or sobriquets used to describe an investigator. (According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word sobriquet means an alias, nickname or descriptive name.)
- Shamus – Believed to have originated in the late 1920s/early 1930s and of obscure origin, this is slang for a private detective. It’s thought to have popularly derived from either Yiddish shames, shammes or the Irish male given name Séamas.
- Sherlock – This is an easy one. Sherlock is named after Sherlock Holmes, the fictitious detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
- Sleuth – Short for sleuthhound, a sleuth is a detective. The expression was first recorded in 1875–80.
- Private Eye – It’s been suggested that this term was based on a logo developed and adopted by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency which was trade marked in 1884. The logo featured an eye and the words We Never Sleep.
- Private Dick – One theory is that the word dick came from the Romanian word “dik” which means “to see” or “to watch”. This term was often used in the late 1800s by criminals who believed they were being watched carefully by law enforcement or government security agencies. Another theory is that the name was based on a legendary fictional Scottish detective named Dick Donovan who was the central figure in numerous investigation mystery novels in the late 1800s.
- Gumshoe – This term refers primarily to private detectives and plain-clothes police. The word comes from the idea of wearing rubber-soled shoes so as to move quietly.
- Stickybeak – This sounds like a bird who has become attached to some adhesive like material. It’s not. This is Australian slang for a busybody or meddler.
- Bird-Dog – This word dates back to the early 1940s and means to watch closely.
- Inquiry Agent – This is British for a private detective.
- Flatfoot – In the early 1900s police departments in large metropolitan centers in the US employed patrols on foot. Because of the excessive walking, it was not uncommon for police to develop fallen arches or flat feet. Since that time, foot patrols have been referred in slang as ‘flat foots”.
- Snooper – This is an informal British expression and is a synonym for nosy parker, busybody and meddler. Originally, it meant a person employed by the government to spy on benefit claimants to ensure no fraud was occurring.
What does the law say about Private Investigator names?
Licensed private investigators in Ontario are governed by the Private Security and Investigative Services Act (2005). The Act is quite clear on nomenclature. Private investigators are prohibited from presenting themselves as police officers or performing police related duties.
Private Investigators are also prohibited from using the following words when referring to their work as private investigators:
- Detective or Private Detective
- Law Enforcement
As you can see, none of the above sobriquets made the above list. The odds are we will see numerous sobriquets used in novels, TV shows and movies moving forward, but you won’t hear them being used professionally by Private Investigators. It’s the law.