A period of enforced boredom last month led me into a consideration of the correct spelling of whodunit/whodunnit. Not a big issue for most people, but you take what you can get.
Google ngrams, which searches the vast scanned library of Google Books, offers a clear justification for one-n whodunit. It’s far and away the most-used form, and it also came into use earlier than two-n.
However, the OED argues that two-n ‘whodunnit’ is the British English form. Another quick ngram puts paid to that idea.
So whosedit first? Like many a dogged pursuer after truth, I initially turned to Wikipedia, which says (as of 1 August 2013):
Journalist Wolfe Kaufman claims that he coined the word “whodunit” around 1935 while working for Variety magazine, however, an editor of the magazine, Abel Green, attributed it to his predecessor, Sime Silverman. The earliest appearance of the word “whodunit” in Variety occurs in the edition of August 28th, 1934, in reference to the film adaptation of the play Recipe for Murder, as featured in the headline, “U’s Whodunit: Universal is shooting ‘Recipe for Murder,’ Arnold Ridley’s play”.
He never did, though. Here’s the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary:
1930 D. Gordon in News of Books. (U.S.) July 10 Half-Mast Murder, by Milward Kennedy—A satisfactory whodunit.
Hmm, so what about Google ngrams showing usage from 1925 then? To zoom in on that piece of the graph…
A keyword search on Google Books from 1925 turns up two contenders for first use, the strongest of which seems to be The House on the Downs, by one Gladys Edson Locke (the other is a book about chess).
The Dorchester Atheneum website says that Gladys:
…tried her hand at writing detective / mystery novels in the style of the English Country House Mystery. Locke was of English descent, loving England and feeling a close emotional and spiritual connection. The scenes of her books are often located in the British Isles, reflecting her frequent travels to England and Scotland.
Seems likely enough. However, I’m made suspicious by something lower down on Google’s book summary page, a reference to Leonore S. Gribbin’s 1968 Who’s Whodunit, ‘a list of 3218 detective story writers and their 1100 pseudonyms’. Google doesn’t seem to have the full text of The House on the Downs, so can it really have indexed the word? Is some Google algorithm giving me a false hit in Gladys’ book simply because it is mentioned in Leonore’s book? Does anyone out there have a copy? Or understand how Google Books searches work?
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.