“You said you wanted a smoking gun; how about a smoking proverb?”

That’s a line out of Manhunt: Unabomber, the gripping new(ish) TV series about how a notorious serial killer was tracked down and apprehended, largely thanks to the relatively young science known as “forensic linguistics.” If you want to know what forensic linguistics is all about, watch this series. (And read Glossophilia’s earlier post about another famous crime in which this particular form of detective work played an important role.) For a quick taster of the series, and to see how linguistics came into the crime in question, watch the video clip below to discover how a common proverb was the key to cracking the case of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Which proverb was it, and how did its history help the FBI to solve the case?

As Ben Zimmer explained in his New York Times “On Language” column in 2011, “the version of the proverb with “eat your cake” followed by “having it” does make more sense to many people, and that is in fact how it was first formulated in English. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs quotes a 1546 compendium by John Heywood, “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?” In his Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro supplies a more typical phrasing from John Davies in 1611: ‘A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.'”

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