Semantics of murder: A look at the titles of the 66 novels by Agatha Christie

Agatha

Murder, death, and mystery… Well, who would have guessed?  Here is the  count of the top six words used in the  titles of  the 66 mystery novels by Agatha Christie, between 1920 and 1976

death

It is probably more revealing to note that all titles taken together (counting 19 US variants and new titles (such as And then there were none) are constituted of a total of 335 words, with 199 unique words. Less than 200 words to describe the output of an entire career of more than 55 years does not seem like much. And significantly less so if one retains only the original titles of the 66 first editions. This then amounts to a total of 229 words and 152 unique words. The most frequent words in the corpus remain murder (8), death (4), mystery (4), dead (2) and end (2). This result seems to confirm the perception of Christie as a writer restricting herself to a limited range of vocabulary.

By comparison the master of language invention in French, the famously prolix San-Antonio, uses more words and longer titles. But the discrepancy in figures is not as huge as might have been anticipated. San-Antonio uses only 273 words and 174 unique words for the titles of the first 66 novels in his long series. And 311 words, with 214 unique words for the 66 last, when his linguistic exuberance was at its peak, and formed an essential part of the readers’ expectations. Of course, one should not compare titles in different languages, as each language has varied resources (vocabulary, syntax) which can impact on the length of titles. But it is worth noting that Christie’s titles are less summary and much more varied than she is credited for. The real difference however is not in the numbers but in the lexis and the connotations. And here, in terms of colourfulness, as evidenced below, there can be no real contest with San-Antonio.

princesse

 

A closer element of comparison are of course the English titles of Simenon’s Maigret novels (the 66 first).  The most frequent words in the corpus are, as expected, Maigret (38), Maigret’s (10), case (4), inspector (4) and crime (3). But not only are the titles not much longer than Christie’s  (using 257 words to her 229), their vocabulary is even less varied than hers (118 unique words to her 152).
maig
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