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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Woolly Wordings 5

Some of the more famous mistakes relating to names have already merited mention on this blog.  Such as Watson’s wife calling him James or the multiple brothers named James Moriarty, but a few other lesser-known instances come to mind from the stories.  Also revealed earlier on this blog site is the fact that while the British and American editions of the stories were published at approximately the same time, the text was not always identical.

The Honourable Ronald Adair was a well-known name after his untimely death round the time of Holmes’ return to London as recounted by Watson in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”  There appears to be some confusion among the editors in the third paragraph of the story as to the intention of Conan Doyle.  ‘The Strand Magazine’ begins that paragraph with “The Honourable Robert Adair was the second son of the Earl of Maynooth, at that time Governor of one of the Australian colonies.  Adair’s mother had returned from Australia to undergo an operation for cataract, and she, her son Ronald, and her daughter Hilda were living together at 427 Park Lane.”  The Honourable Robert Adair is apparently the father of the Honourable Ronald Adair making the Earl of Maynooth the father of Robert Adair.  The editors of the American Collier’s magazine used Ronald instead of Robert for that instance even though it alters the meaning by letting the unnamed Earl of Maynooth become the father of Ronald and leaving Robert out altogether.

Some other examples in the stories with name variations include the following.  In chapter 10 of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ the editors of “The Strand Magazine” corrupted the name of the busybody Frankland by referring to “Franklin’s skull.”  In chapter 11 of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ the American edition of the book contains the paragraph “Mrs. Lyon flushed with anger again.” even though every other instance is Lyons.  The editors of “The Strand Magazine” appear to have forgotten in ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ that Dr. Barnicot was a doctor for they have Lestrade refer to him as Mr. Barnicot. 

NEXT WEEK: The rooms at 221b Baker Street, London

Woolly Wordings 4

In ‘A Scandal inBohemia,’ Watson writes of Sherlock Holmes: “His manner was not effusive.  It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me.  With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an arm-chair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner.”  Then again, in ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,’ Holmes says, “The gasogene and cigars are in the old place.”  In ‘The Adventure of Black Peter,’ Peter Carey had a tantalus in his cabin.  You might ask: What are the gasogene, spirit case, and tantalus mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories?

In Victorian England, there were no carbonated beverages sold in stores.  A container for sustaining carbonation was not a commonality at the time if it even existed at all.  The gasogene (sometime referred to as a seltzogene) was a, usually glass, container designed to hold the carbonated liquid created by adding sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) and tartaric acid to the fluid inside.  The spirit case is simply a cabinet to store liquor while a tantalus is nothing more than a locked spirit case.

NEXT WEEK: The philosophy and practicality of deduction and induction.

Woolly Wordings 3

Many of you may not know that there are two versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  The manuscripts were usually handwritten by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s secretary of forty years, Major Alfred Wood, or by others including the author himself.  After the publishing of the first two novels, most of the remaining manuscripts were edited and published in either a British or American magazine.  Then the document travelled to the other country, where it was edited again and placed in a magazine there.  On occasion this led to some interesting textual departures.

One such instance involved the short story ‘Silver Blaze,’ Sherlock Holmes begins his narrative to Watson with the following sentence from the Strand Magazine: “Silver Blaze,” said he, “is from the Isonomy stock, and holds as brilliant a record as his famous ancestor.”  Isonomy was a very real and famous horse at the time in Britain, but the American editors, failing to understand the connection, used the name Somomy.

In the short story ‘The Naval Treaty.’  As Sherlock Holmes is recounting his scuffle with Joseph Harrison in the Strand Magazine, he says, “He flew at me with his knife, I had to grass him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”  Unfortunately, the American editors of Harper’s Magazine misunderstood the term “grass,” which simply means to put on the ground, and they changed the word to the rather awkward “grasp.”

NEXT: The housekeeper

Woolly Wordings 2

LANTERN
Before the common use of ‘portable’ electricity or batteries, the law enforcement community used a somewhat compact device known as a dark lantern to illumine a path in the nocturnal hours, and Sherlock Holmes used this clever device on many occasions. Watson mentions it by name in six stories: ‘The Red-Headed League,’ ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’ ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,’ ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,’ ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ and ‘The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.’ In ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,’ Watson mentions a pocket lantern. In ‘The Valley of Fear,’ Inspector MacDonald mentions that professor Moriarty used a reflector lantern to help explain an eclipse. The police use a lantern in four other tales, but we can only speculate on the type of lantern employed on those occasions. Also, in six further occurrences, private citizens carried a lantern, but the reader must conjecture on whether these were the bulky kind though sometimes the descriptions lead one to believe they are the larger variety. All of these lamps used some form of liquid fuel directed into a lit wick to operate.

DARK LANTERN
Dark Lantern image from US Handcuffs

POCKET LANTERN
Pocket lantern image from Prices4Antiques

REFLECTOR LANTERN
By Athanasius Kircher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Optic Projection fig 404

BELL-ROPE or BELL-PULL
The bell-rope or bell-pull featured prominently in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’ but you may not know its normal use. The bell-rope was typically a decorative rope attached to a mechanical rope network ending with bells located in the servants’ quarters, which called them to a specific room based upon which bell was ringing. In ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, Sherlock Holmes says, “and to the rope – for so we may call it, since it was clearly never meant for a bell-pull” for it ended at the ceiling! This summoning tool is also mentioned in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ ‘The Naval Treaty,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.’

BELL-PULL
James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Company-Shocked-Gillray

I hope you enjoyed this little adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.

NEXT WEEK: Sherlock Holmes’ Drug Use

Obscure Definitions

On several occasions the Sherlock Holmes stories contain words and phrases that may not be familiar to many modern readers, so this is a first attempt to help in identifying some of these. But what shall I call it?

ambiguous argot
blurred banter
confusing chitchat
distant dialect
enigmatic expression
fuzzy turn of phrase
intangible idiom
little known lingo
obscure oration
puzzling parley
rambling rant
shrouded saying
tuned-out terminology
unclear utterance
veiled vernacular
woolly wording

Ulsterovercoat jan1903

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The ulster is mentioned in ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ ‘The Sign of Four,’ ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ is the closest thing in the stories to the Inverness cape that Sherlock Holmes is so often portrayed as wearing, and he actually donned one when pursuing “Mrs. Sawyer” during the first story in the list, and Holmes and Watson wore ulsters in their evening excursion during the fourth story in the list. The ulster is a long–usually below the knee–overcoat with a cape and sleeves though the cape went out of fashion at some point.

The landau is mentioned in both ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘Silver Blaze.’ In Holmes’ day, it was one type of horse-drawn, four-wheeled, convertible carriage with a full or half side-door and a dropped foot well for ease of entry and exit. The two-part collapsible top rested at front and back then attached in the centre when fully opened.

NEXT WEEK: The naming of John H. Watson, M.D.