Woolly Wordings 6

In the years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the sixty stories of Sherlock Holmes, many changes have come about in the English language, and many words and phrases have passed in and out of common use. This post takes two of the now less common words from that time and attempts to clarify them for the modern reader.

In ‘The Crooked Man’ we find a dead man who had fallen over a chair and cut his head on the corner of a fender in his own morning-room, but what is this fender inside the house? In this case, it is a metal border for the fireplace that is meant to keep the coal, soot, and ash of the fire inside the fireplace.

In ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’ we find Holmes and Watson breaking and entering Milverton’s home, and, in the course of describing the interior of the house, Watson writes “a portière at the farther side showed the entrance to [Milverton’s] bedroom.” You may find yourself asking, as I did, what is a portière? It is a door curtain used as a decorative addition or to prevent drafts, and it usually indicated an upper class Victorian home.

NEXT WEEK: A little feature I like to call Time Benders.

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Translations of the Non-English Quotations

From time to time in the Sherlock Holmes stories foreign phrases dot the page, and you may find yourself wondering what those phrases mean.  Well you do not have to wonder any longer because this post will set your mind at ease.

Near the beginning of chapter 6, part 1, of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ Holmes quotes Nicolas Boileau when describing the lot of the police detectives: “Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire,” which translates from French into: “A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him.” At the end of that story, Watson quotes this Latin phrase from Horace: “Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo; Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca” (Book 1, Satire 1).  It means, “The public hisses at me, but I applaud myself in my own house, and simultaneously contemplate the money in my chest.”  Also, in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ the French word “adieu” means “good-bye” or, literally, “until God.”

‘The Sign of Four’ has several foreign phrases and words.  Thaddeus Sholto quotes the French phrase of Stendhal in chapter 4: “Le mauvais gout mene au crime.” Which means, “Bad taste leads to crime.”  In chapter 6, Holmes slightly misquotes a French saying of Francois de la Rochefoucauld.  In commenting upon Inspector Athelney Jones’ noticing the trap-door in the roof, Holmes says, “He can find something, he has occasional glimmerings of reason.  Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!” (the original starts “Il n’y a point de . . .”) and it means: “There are no fools so troublesome as those that have some wit.”  In chapter 6, Holmes quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the first of two occasions; this time referring to the methods of Inspector Athelney Jones: “Wir sind gewohnt dass die Menschen verhohnen was sie nicht verstehen.”  The translation from German goes: “We are used to seeing that Man despises what he never comprehends.”  In chapter 10, Watson writes that Athelney Jones “faced his dinner with the air of a bon vivant.”  The translation of ‘bon vivant’ from French is someone who knows how to enjoy life.  Near the end of the story in chapter 12, Holmes says: “Yes, there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer, and also of a pretty spry sort of a fellow.  I often think of those lines of old Goethe:  Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus Dir schuf, / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schlemen der Stoff.”  The translation from German goes: “Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue.”

In the short story ‘The Red-Headed League,’ Holmes laments explaining his reasoning by stating in Latin, “Omne ignotum pro magnifico,” or “Everything unknown seems magnificent.”  At the end of the story Holmes says, “‘L’homme c’est rien–l’oeuvre c’est tout,’ as Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand.”  The translation from French is: “The man is nothing–the work is everything.”

In ‘A Case of Identity’ the French phrase “affaire du coeur” translates as “an affair of the heart” or “love affair.” Also, at the end of the story Holmes finishes by saying “Voilà tout!” in French, which simply means “That is all!”

Sherlock Holmes says, “Nous verrons, you work your own method, and I shall work mine.  I shall be busy this afternoon, and shall probably return to London by the evening train,” in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery.  The translation of the French is: “We shall see.”

In ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ the French phrase “fait accompli” translates as “fact realised or accomplished,” and it might be better understood with the modern idiom a done deal.

We find three French phrases or words in ‘The Valley of Fear,’ the first “genius loci” means roughly the mental impression left by a location.  Second, Watson writes that no “peine forte et dure” would ever force Cecil James Barker to plead against his will.  The translation of the French means: “Strong and hard punishment” or “torture.”  Third, John McMurdo calls Ettie Shafter “acushla” several times which means “darling” in Irish.

Holmes calls Isadora Klein the “the ‘belle dame sans merci’ of fiction.” In ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables.  The French translation is ‘The beautiful woman without mercy,’ and he is presumably referring to the 1424 poem of Alain Chartier or the 1819 English poem of John Keats both using the French title.

Several stories use the French phrase “au revoir” which literally means “to the next time we see one another.”

If anyone wants to add or correct anything, please make a comment out of it for the benefit of other readers.

NEXT WEEK: Woolly Wordings 6

The Rooms at 221b Baker Street, London

The London address 221b Baker Street, as with so many other locations named in the stories, did not exist in Conan Doyle’s day.  The numbers on Baker Street up until about 1921 only went as high as 85.  The offices of Abbey National Building Society encompassed the famous 221 for many years, and they have been known to answer correspondence addressed to the famous detective.  The Sherlock Holmes Museum is presently occupying the famous Baker Street address, and it is dedicated to preserving the appearance and ambience of the flat shared by Holmes and Watson.

It is curious that Watson is silent on two of the other famous fixtures in the neighbourhood.  The original Madame Tussaud’s wax museum was just a few steps from the famous, would-be address of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at 221b Baker Street.  The Baker Street railway station would have been one of the closest regardless of exactly where 221b may have been.  Intriguingly, neither is remarked upon in the stories.

In the stories themselves we are given several clues about the apartment and how the rooms are arranged.  In “A Study in Scarlet,” Watson describes the flat in this manner, “a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.”  In the famous dialogue between Holmes and Watson in ‘The Musgrave Ritual,’ about the difference between seeing and observing we learn that there are seventeen steps from the ground floor to the first floor (second floor in America) sitting-room.  It would seem likely that Holmes’ bedroom adjoins the sitting-room for in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ “he vanished into the bedroom, whence he emerged in five minutes tweed-suited and respectable, as of old.”  Watson came “down to breakfast” in ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,’ ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,’ so Watson’s bedroom is apparently on the floor above the sitting-room.  In ‘The Naval Treaty,’ Holmes says, “Mr. Phelps can have the spare bedroom to-night,” so he must be referring to his own bedroom, which will be temporarily empty for the night.  In ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,’ Holmes tells Inspector Lestrade “you are welcome to the sofa” as both Watson and Holmes remain at home that night.  In ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,’ we learn that one of multiple lumber-rooms is packed with old daily papers, and it is a safe bet that the other lumber-rooms are filled with other odds and ends like all the newspaper clippings Holmes was fond of collecting.  The manager of the flat, Mrs. Hudson, kept it as neat as may be expected with two such irregular bachelors as lodgers.

NEXT WEEK: Translating the non-English quotations