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The meaning and origin of the expression: The usual suspects

The usual suspects

What's the meaning of the phrase 'The usual suspects'?

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"The usual suspects" are the people habitually suspected or arrested following a crime.

The phrase is usually used in regard to scapegoats rather than actual perpetrators of the crime in question.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The usual suspects'?

The phrase "the usual suspects"In previous versions of this little piece I wrote this:

"The usual suspects" has a specific and unambiguous origin. It was spoken by Captain Louis Renault, the French prefect of police, played by Claude Rains in the 1942 U.S. film Casablanca".

Well, I was wrong. That expression, and the extended "round up the usual suspects" existed in the USA prior to 1942 - in the early 1930s in fact. It was in common use then in the police and underworld communities of gangland New York.

Here's a snippet from the New Jersey newspaper The Daily News, January 1932, reporting on the death of the gang member Johnny D'Agostino:

Detectives hurried here and there to question a few of the "regulars" who are picked up in every gang shooting. The prosecutor made the usual number of predictions and named the usual suspects and then one by one eliminated them from the case.

An allusion to the usual suspects being rounded up is found in The Detroit Free Press, July 1932:

A few seconds later, the Harbormaster's boat put out to recover the "body". Just when detectives were ready to order the usual suspects to be rounded up, the grappling hooks came into contact with a heavy object. Raised, it proved to be a cigaret [sic] vending machine which had been rifled.

That story illustrates the routine and groundless nature of the rounding up of suspects - in that case when there was no crime to be suspected of.

A close match to the "round up the usual suspects" expression is found a little later, in The New York Age newspaper, November 1935:

The rubbing out of Schultz and a few of his aides by their hoodlum contemporaries, as usual leaves its aftermath. New York's "criminologists" are rounding up the "usual suspects".

So, we have "the usual suspects" and references to them being rounded up prior to the release of Casablanca. However, I can't find the precise "round up the usual suspects" line that pre-dates the film but I suppose that's just nit-picking.

The usual suspects - the movie'The usual suspects' appears a few times in print from the 1950s onward but didn't become commonplace until the 1990s. That may have been influenced by the eponymous 1995 film noir, directed by Brian Singer.

The phrase is now used it context other than police investigations of crime - anywhere in fact that has customary elements. For example, this piece from The New Republic, February 1991:

Among the roster of opponents of free, subversive thought have been the usual suspects: religion, patriotism, Marxism, materialism, bourgeois propriety.

'The usual suspects' is now as commonly used as other lines from the film that were spoken by Bogart and which were much more quickly taken into the public consciousness:

"Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake."
"Here's looking at you, kid.
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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