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In Agatha Christie's book The Listerdale Mystery, in the story Swan Song, there is the following qoute:

It required no imagination to realise that his father's name had been Cohen.

This comes after a description of Mr Cowen, the agent of an Opera Singer.

The description is:

He was a tall man, clean-shaven, with a frame rather too well covered, and clothes that were rather too faultless. His hair was very black and shining, and his teeth were aggressively white. When he spoke he had a way of slurring his 's's' which was not quite a lisp, but came perilously near to it.

Why is it then relatively obvious (i.e. it requires no imagination) that Mr Cowen's actual surname is Cohen?

  • Depending on how you say both names, the last names might be pronounced identically. – Shokhet Jul 18 '17 at 15:36
  • @Shokhet I agree, but I suspect that in this case the one is said Co-When and the other Co-hen (as in Chicken). I could well be wrong though. – Mirte Jul 19 '17 at 14:12
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    Both can be pronounced "Co-en," or close enough that they'd sound similar. – Shokhet Jul 19 '17 at 14:14
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I dug up the quote on Google Books, as I believe it is relevant to the question exactly how the sentences are joined together. The full paragraph reads:

He displayed neither resentment or surprise. Mr Cowan was indeed accustomed to the vagaries of the artistic temperament. He was a tall man, clean-shaven, with a frame rather too well covered, and clothes that were rather too faultless. His hair was very black and shining, and his teeth were aggressively white. When he spoke he had a way of slurring his 's's' which was not quite a lisp, but came perilously near to it. It required no imagination to realise that his father's name had been Cohen. At that minute a door on the other side of the room opened, and a trim, French girl hurried through.

I do not read the sentence in question as a comment on the previous description, but rather as a continuation of it: apart from the other characteristics just described, Mr Cowan looked like he should have been named Mr Cowen. The most common stereotype about Jewish looks is probably that of the large, aquiline nose. My guess is that is what is intended by the sentence.

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The only stereotype I know of relating to the name Cohen is that it's a very common Jewish surname, coming directly from the Hebrew כֹּהֵן‎ (kōhēn) meaning "priest". From Wikipedia:

Bearing the surname often (although not always) indicates that one's patrilineal ancestors were priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. A single such priest was known as a Kohen, and the hereditary caste descending from these priests is collectively known as the Kohanim.

Thus, if someone is described as being clearly descended from a Cohen, the only thing I can think of is that their appearance must be somehow very Jewish. I'm not familiar enough with these stereotypes to be sure, but perhaps the accent described is influenced by Yiddish? Anyway, this must be what the passage is supposed to mean, as that's the significance of the name Cohen.

(Interestingly, Cowen is an Irish surname, with no Jewish connections as far as I'm aware. Presumably the surname change from Cohen to Cowen, if indeed there was one, was part of a reasonably common practice among Jewish families in those days to change their surnames to less Jewish-sounding ones.)

  • This is how I'd interpret it too. I don't think Christie actually goes and describes what it is about the person that looks/sounds Jewish (which is probably for the best; attempts to describe the stereotypes can be pretty nasty); she just assumes you know what "looking Jewish" means. – Standback Jul 19 '17 at 11:37
  • "I'm not familiar enough with these stereotypes to be sure": then I have to ask, why answer the question? – user111 Jul 19 '17 at 13:28
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    @Hamlet Because I do have enough evidence to provide and support what I believe is the only possible answer. – Rand al'Thor Jul 19 '17 at 13:30
  • @Standback "I don't think Christie actually goes and describes what it is about the person that looks/sounds Jewish (which is probably for the best; attempts to describe the stereotypes can be pretty nasty)"... nah, see en.wikipedia.org?oldid=788984779#Character_stereotypes - it's not difficult to imagine that the description was meant as a stereotype (the lisp perhaps? I'm unfamiliar with a stereotype of Jews' lisping, but maybe such exists). – msh210 Jul 19 '17 at 16:44
  • @msh210 Speaking as a Jew, I'm just not keying into any clear stereotype in this particular passage. And if it isn't something obvious, well-known, and very clear-cut, it loses everything she actually is describing -- the self-evidence of a Jewish person trying to blend in. – Standback Jul 19 '17 at 21:29

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