Gol Darn it! That black camel was “unbid,” not “unbidden.”

OK, I admit it, goldarn is actually one word. But I already typed it (and I like it better separated) so we’ll leave that alone. However, what REALLY irks me is a famous misquote I hear–and see–over and over again!

Here is the quote from the 1929 novel, The Black Camel. Charlie Chan has just been informed that famed Actress Shelah Fane has been found murdered; stabbed through the heart in a pavilion on the beach. Somberly, he and Tarneverro (a Hollywood mystic) climb into Charlie’s flivver to head to the scene of the crime:

“This is a terrible thing,” the fortune-teller said. “Poor Shelah–I can scarcely realize it.”

Charlie shrugged. “Time to be philosophical,” he suggested. “You have perhaps heard of old Eastern saying. ‘Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate.’ Sooner or later–does it matter which?”

Charlie Chan, The Black Camel, 1929, Chapter 4 “The Camel at The Gate.”

Now I’ve seen and heard it so often as “unbidden” I decided to double-check several editions of the novel: Bobbs-Merrill, Grosset & Dunlap, and the latest release I know of by Academy Chicago Publishers (2009.) I even went so far as to seek out the original quote in The Saturday Evening Post, where the story was first serialized. And that unwelcome camel was unbid–not unbidden!

Even the back cover of that latest book release (2009) starts with the misquote! While inside it’s written as, yep…unbid.

So why? Why is it almost always misquoted? To FINALLY nip this in the bud I sought out that master of clairvoyants, Miss Cleo (Yes, she is still around, but only through a secret underground network.) I asked if it was possible to contact a murdered, fictional actress using her powers. Surprisingly for a small fee it is! After about 5 minutes of chanting, she actually connected with the belated, fictional actress Shelah Fane. Then, after soothing the way forward Ms. Cleo told me to go ahead and ask my questions (she left the room explaining, “it increases the celestial one-on-one communication.”):

Me: “Ms. Fane, I need to ask you one question and if you can please answer me in a complete sentence.”

Shelah Fane: “I understand.”

Me: “Would you say, ‘You did not bid the black camel kneel at your door that night,’ or would you say, ‘That night the black camel was unbidden by you to kneel at your door’?”

Shelah Fane: “I would say, (click) mmmmmm………………” (a brief moment later, Ms. Cloe returned.)

Dramatic re-enactment of mystic event with Ms. Cleo

Well for the love of… I couldn’t believe it, the connection dropped! Ms. Cleo tried again two more times (another small fee,) but we could not get Shelah Fane back.

However, despite my disappointing psychic adventure I believe I finally unraveled the mystery. Truth be told the real blame for that repeated misquote can be found at the doorsteps of the usual culprit…HOLLYWOOD. Although, it possibly could have been artistic discretion (or misread) by Actor Warner Oland starring as the detective in the 1931 Fox Studio Film, The Black Camel. Take a listen:

Postscript: Not sure, but this might be a case of active or passive voice, past or present verb conjugation, or something else. Whichever, didn’t matter much for poor Shelah!

“I seem to have been setting off fireworks in the rain”

Charlie Chan, The Black Camel, 1929, Chapter 6

4 thoughts on “Gol Darn it! That black camel was “unbid,” not “unbidden.”

  1. This is a perplexing issue, Lou! I am far from being an expert regarding the intricacies of the English language, but in cruising the Internet about this, it seems that either unbid or unbidden seems to be okay. Yes, Mr. Chan does use “unbidden” in the film version of “The Black Camel,” while in the novel it is “unbid.” For me, “unbid” is something I have done on occasion on eBay!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It took me a moment, but I finally got that. Good point! Maybe during filming Shelah Fane was bidding on which camel to come carry her into the great beyond and Warner Oland realized that (smile.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is interesting! I spent maybe ten minutes looking up “unbid” and “unbidden” and all sources that I found seem to say they are one and the same, totally interchangeable (except for “unbid” when it comes to auctions). The more common and seemingly preferred use is “unbidden.

    However! I think that Biggers’ choice of “unbid” in that sentence shows us that he was a very good writer, with command of word usage, word choice, and sentence composition (rhythm, grace, emphasis, etc.) In English the letter D is a hard-consonant letter. It’s also a stop-consonant letter. The breath stops and is kind of expelled after the stop. Life is hard. Death is hard. Unbid is hard. It is the perfect-sounding word for what Biggers is saying. N, on the other hand, is not a hard-consonant or a stop-consonant. Words that end in N kind of stop in the back of the mouth. They are not emphatic. “Unbidden” is just too soft a word to use in the Biggers’ sentence: it’s like expressing the view that death isn’t so bad after all.

    In addition, look at the power of that sentence: “Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate.” Eleven words, NINE of which are one-syllable words (strong words!). Two of which are two-syllable words (unbid, every). Why would you muck up such a powerful sentence by adding an unnecessary, intrusive, three-syllable word such as “unbidden”?? Anyone who does that does not have the same feel for power and language that Biggers did.

    GREAT INSTINCTS ON YOUR PART, LOU! Looking forward to future blogs, whether or not they’re language-oriented.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara, that is “Fascinating!” And I see both points you bring up: the hard sound of the “D”, and the number of one-syllable words (strong words.) You amaze me with your knowledge of the English Language! I’m so glad you agree that “unbid” is the better choice for this particular aphorism, a tip of the Panama Hat to Earl. Also, I’m sure had we not been disconnected Shelah Fane would have put the nail in the coffin on that point (Oops, probably a bad choice of words there!)

    Liked by 1 person

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