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Deciphering a Textbook of Friendship
It's elementary. Or is it?
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock.” A newsletter for word nerds.
“The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1926
I try to tie the Timeless & Timely theme of the week to the “Off the Clock” entry, and on occasion, it can be a stretch.
This week’s essay on friendship hit home with many readers. I received more mail from this essay than any other. And because of that, I’ve lifted the paywall so everyone can read it.
If you think this kind of writing is worthy of your backing, then I’d ask you to consider becoming a paid supporter.
Anyway, trying to tie in friendship with our Saturday focus on words was a challenge this week. And like a golfer who favors the same club in his bag, I’m returning to subject matter that is just as comfortable and true in my hands.
That’s right: Sherlock Holmes (sorry/not sorry).
I chose it because it is a perfect representation of the comfort and ease of the friendship of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. And it reminded me that in 1944, Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, called the 60 stories “a textbook of friendship.”
In looking at Morley’s book again, I found a paragraph that stood out for its references to words, and just like that, we were off to the races for today’s entry.
“The enthusiast likes to dream of the great omnibus volume in which the whole Sherlockian codex would be annotated from end to end for a new generation. Lest one suppose that explanations are unnecessary, take at random a few examples of casual passages. How many young readers know what is a wax vesta? A gasogene, or a tantalus? A commonplace book? a Crockford? a Bradshaw?” A wideawake, or a billycock? A London growler? a penang lawyer?”
We, in the era of smartphones and easy access to dictionary.com, don’t give this conundrum a second thought. But to the mid-20th century reader, it was a different story.
In Morley’s time (he died in 1957), there was no definitive edition. A decade later Clarkson N. Potter published William S. Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but that was something of a chronology and collation of “writings on the writings.”
Fast forward another decade: in 1977, Jack Tracy released The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana: A Universal Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes and His Biographer John. H. Watson, M.D.
This is the very thing Morley had long sought — a volume that made sense of the terms that friends like Holmes and Watson batted around with ease.
So, for fun, let’s look at Tracy’s definitions of Morley’s choice words and phrases. Italics are mine.
A wax friction match, consisting of a wax stem with embedded cotton threads and a tip of phosphorus. Swan vestas were a common brand at the time, originating in Liverpool around 1883.
An apparatus for manufacturing aerated water on a small scale for domestic use, by the action of an acid upon an alkali carbonate, generally used to make “soda” for alcoholic drinks. Its profile was usually two glass globes, one on top of the other, and wrapped in wire mesh. That design was known by its brand name, Seltzogene, and our modern derivative is a seltzer bottle.
A stand containing usually three cut-glass decanters, which, though apparently free, cannot be removed until the bar which engages the stoppers is raised. Named for the mythical figure Tantalus, who was chained in a lake for eternity with a tree of fruit overhead. When he lowered his head for a drink, the water receded; when he reached for the fruit, the branches raised.
A book in which things especially to be remembered or referred to are methodically recorded.
More properly, Crockford’s Clerical Dictionary, an annual directory published since 1858.
Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, the most complete of the numerous British railway guides, published monthly. Your handy public transport app will do just fine today, thank you.
A soft, felt hat.
A bowler hat.
In English slang, a four-wheeler. A four-wheeler if officially known as a clarence cab, the enclosed four-wheeled cab, drawn by a single horse, commonly used in English cities.
A walking-stick, usually with a bulbous head, made of palm-wood and imported from Penang, a British-owned island off the west coast of Malaya, or from Singapore.
I hope you enjoyed this little stroll through common Victorian language. I’ll see if I can get out of my Sherlockian slump next week.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.