Q&A: Solving “whodunit” vs “whodunnit”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're murdering the English language…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been watching a lot of murder mysteries lately, and I’m wondering where the term “whodunnit” came from? It’s catchy but highly problematic from a grammar perspective!

A: That’s true – but “who has done this?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily.

Q: Indeed. So, can you explain its origin?

A: We can. But first, if you’ll all gather in the library…

Q: But there’s only me. Ooooooh I see what you’re doing. Classic whodunnit trope!

A: Exactly. And first, now that you’re sitting comfortably – or leaning casually against the mantelpiece – let’s begin with some simple exposition. Macquarie Dictionary lists “whodunnit” as colloquial for “murder mystery”. But you see, Macquarie wasn’t the ONLY dictionary in the room that night.

Q: Gasp!

A: That’s right. The US Merriam-Webster Dictionary also has a listing and it quietly disposed of one of the “n”s when no one was looking.

Q: Huh?

A: We’re trying to say that they prefer to spell it “whodunit” instead – with one “n”.

Q: This is preposterous. I won’t stand for it!

A: Then please, sit down.

Q: Oh, um. Okay. Do go on.

A: You see, while both spellings are acceptable, our American tycoon friend here has been overheard many times as preferring just the single “n” – while British English (including Australia and New Zealand) make it a double.

Q: Oh yes, great idea. Make mine a double!

A: And now, a timeline of events.

Q: Ah excellent! So how old IS this word?

A: From our notes, we can deduce that the slang word “whodunit” slipped quietly into the English language a little after 1929.

Q: The year 1929?

A: The very same. While the world was distracted with Wall Street crashes, dancing the Charleston and making everything art deco, “whodunit” saw an opening.

Q: Fascinating! But who let the word in?

A: An excellent question. According to Merriam-Webster, at precisely 1930, a gentleman named Donald Gordon entered the picture. You see, Gordon was a book reviewer and needed to come up with something catchy to say about a rather dull mystery novel called Half-Mast Murder

Q: Motive!

A: Indeed.

Q: What did he say? Did he whisper the words as his dying breath?

A: What? No! He wrote them. “A satisfactory whodunit,” the review said. And the world gasped with delight.

Q: Gasp!

A: Precisely.

Q: But wait a minute. I’ve been looking at the timeline and something doesn’t add up. You said that the word was already in the building by that time, right?

A: Yes, it had been introduced a year earlier, in 1929. No one knows how or why it first appeared, but it was the kind of word that played fast and loose with spelling. The kind of word that could kill a man with its disregard for grammar. And there it was, standing in the doorway of the English language…

Q: Hang on, are you now doing a kind of gumshoe Marlowe detective thing?

A: Ahem, yes, sorry. Anyway, the term had likely appeared thanks to the meteoric rise of murder mystery titles in the 1920s by authors such as Agatha Christie. The term was initially trialled as the more clunky “who-done-it” or “whodidit” but ultimately, helped by writers like Donald Gordon, the “whodunit” spelling prevailed.

Q: And it became popular?

A: Did it ever! The term was the talk of the town throughout the 1930s. “Whodunit” made itself a regular attendee on the vocabulary circuit – attending the fanciest parties and on the lips of plenty of influential people. Which is probably why some wanted it dead.

Q: Gasp!

A: Yes, by 1939, the term “whodunit” had apparently become so popular that many language pundits were predicting that this overworked phrase would soon be “dumped into the taboo bin” and die out.

Q: But it wasn’t murdered at all!

A: No. It lived on. In fact, it even went on to have a love child.

Q: Gasp!

A: That’s right. The Online Etymology Dictionary lists the term “whydunit” as debuting in 1968 – a type of detective story where the focus isn’t on who did the crime, but what their motives were.

Q: That sounds preposterous!

A: Yeah, it’s not listed in our Macquarie dictionary, but Merriam-Webster has it.

Q: So let me get this straight. You’re telling me that this SLANG of a word snuck into the English language at the end of the 1920s as a catchy way to describe the popular murder mystery genre of the day. And instead of burning up and burning out as many had predicted, it has gone on to live well into its 90s…?

A: That’s right. And remember that while the original spelling was “whodunit”, using “whodunnit” is unlikely to result in a case of mistaken identity – just be consistent.

Q: So who DID do it?

A: As always, the English language is guilty. They let the word in sometime during 1929, looked the other way throughout the 1930s and after the botched attempted murder, simply washed its hands of it. 

Q: I knew it! Officers, take this language away. I have witnessed countless other crimes and inconsistencies over the years and I’m willing to testify!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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