Sherlock Holmes and the case of the serial chucklerSep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JOE QUEENAN
It is always strange to stumble upon seemingly modern turns of phrase in books that are quite old. It proves that catchphrases and colorful expressions believed to have entered the vernacular in recent times have actually been around for decades, even centuries. What’s more, they often originated in places one would not expect: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for example. It is now widely believed that the first use of the term “crib” to describe a home or apartment can be found in the 1894 Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle.” Here, Conan Doyle, writing as Dr. Watson, remarks, “A gang of burglars acting in the country might be expected to vary the scenes of their operations, and not to crack two cribs in the same district within a few days.”
This is not an isolated case. The term “cool hand”—closely associated with Paul Newman’s winning turn as an affable convict in Cool Hand Luke (1967)—surfaces in that same Conan Doyle story, when one of Holmes’s clients describes a supposed burglar as “a cool hand.” More unexpected still is the passage in “The Noble Bachelor” in which Holmes inquires, “What’s up, then?”—proving that the contemporary expression “Whassup?” did not originate in a hip, urban American environment.
Most surprising of all is the frequency with which characters chuckle in the works of Conan Doyle. Yes, chuckle. Sherlock Holmes chuckles heartily in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” He also chuckles in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.” He chuckles in “The Golden Pince-Nez” and in “The Red-Headed League” and in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Then, in the otherwise-forgettable “The Adventure of Black Peter,” he chuckles in two different situations—once while pouring coffee and, later, when he bursts out into “a triumphant chuckle.”
And the chuckling is not limited to Holmes. In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” it is a salesman, not Holmes, who chuckles. And, inexplicably, when the man chuckles, he chuckles “grimly.”
The term “chuckle” came into wide use in the English language in the 1770s, right around the time Great Britain was losing its grip on its North American empire. At the time, chuckling was limited to the chattering classes. Blacksmiths did not chuckle, nor did yeomen, farriers, fishwives, or costermongers. The word “chuckle” rarely appears in the work of Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, or George Eliot, primarily because chuckling was then (as now) viewed as a silly, almost undignified, activity.
The point is, chuckling is for namby-pambys. It is the sort of thing one associates with Dagwood Bumstead or Tony in I Dream of Jeannie. Chuckling is like tittering or guffawing, blubbering or chortling. Chuckling is simply not cool. Which makes it all the more strange that Sherlock Holmes should be doing it, as Holmes is the quintessence of late-Victorian and Edwardian cool.
Why, then, does Holmes so regularly chuckle? To answer this question, one must bear in mind that Conan Doyle had decidedly mixed feelings about his most famous creation. Desperate to have his other works taken seriously, Doyle grew to feel trapped in a creative straitjacket by Holmes, whom he actually killed off in “The Final Problem” (1893).
Recently, a number of critics have provided cogent explanations for the mysteriously rampant chuckling that occurs in the Holmes canon. “Conan Doyle despised Holmes,” says Leigh Ashton-Hinds, author of The House of Suppressed Mirth: Chuckling in Late-Victorian Literature.
He hated the fact that Holmes was more famous than he was. The reason he has Holmes chuckle so often is because chuckling is a dithering, goofy activity. It casts the master detective in a poor light. It makes him look like a ridiculous old fuddy-duddy. Subsequent mystery writers understood this. Sam Spade does not chuckle. Jules Maigret does not chuckle. Kurt Wallander does not chuckle. By writing so many passages in which Holmes chuckles, Doyle is literally saying, “This guy is a clown. He’s a doofus. How could you idiots take this jerk seriously?”
Adele Piggott-Gwynne, author of the controversial Sherlock Holmes, Bootymaster, has reached a similar conclusion about Doyle’s motivation for forcing his own creation to chuckle so often and so inappropriately:
A short-term investment in high-yield talentSep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JOE QUEENAN
When writers become famous, it is easy to forget that they were once obscure, and sometimes very poor. Yet with few exceptions—Homer, Tacitus, Omar Khayyam, Jonathan Safran Foer—even the greatest writers had to slave away at menial positions before their careers took off and they could support themselves with their pens alone.
One man’s approach to a problem of modern musicJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By JOE QUEENAN
A few years ago, I was offered two very good tickets to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. I invited my daughter to the game, but almost immediately my wife complained, “Why don’t you ever let me go?” So I gave them the two tickets and went to see the legendary pianist Alfred Brendel at Carnegie Hall instead.
You think ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is traumatic? Think again.Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By JOE QUEENAN
The New York Times recently ran a story about college students requesting “trigger warnings” to alert them that something in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby might freak them out. Such warnings would alert a student that The Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitic elements and that Mrs. Dalloway deals with suicide. The issue of trigger warnings has been raised at schools as varied as Oberlin, Rutgers, and the University of Michigan.
The coupon as emblem of consumer confidence. May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOE QUEENAN
Until the consumer really, really jumps back into the thick of things, the experts agree that this economy is doomed to sputter. Until the average American believes he has the wherewithal to go out and buy that new house, that new car, that new kitchen, unemployment will stay right where it is. Nothing’s going to happen until people start feeling good about the future.
The interrogative mysteries of Deep Space. Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By JOE QUEENAN
Last June, scientists at the Astrolabe Institute in Houston made an electrifying discovery. While listening in on sounds emanating from deep space, they heard what seemed to be a conversation between two sentient creatures located on Nardalus X-50, a small, recently discovered planet.
Sometimes it pays to be excluded from the fun.Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By JOE QUEENAN
Recently, a close friend told me that he had to cut our conversation short because he had tickets to see Steve Martin and Edie Brickell in concert. He clearly expected me to covet his immense good fortune, though my immediate reaction to this statement was, “Better you than I.” Then, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Even, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
’Tis the gift, if you follow these suggestions. Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By JOE QUEENAN
The national conversation about simplifying modern life continues unabated.
But I’m getting a little weary of the adjective. Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOE QUEENAN
The other day, I decided to see how long I could go without reading the word “iconic.”
The more we know about, say, cauliflower, the less we like it.May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JOE QUEENAN
Recently I read a story in my local newspaper reporting that high school kids routinely throw out tons of vegetables because the food in their school lunches is so awful. It would seem that the youth of America particularly object to the lettuce.
Vengeance is mine when the crime is so abhorrent. Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JOE QUEENAN
Recently, I drove to the nearby village of Pleasantville to buy my wife a couple of books as a birthday present. I also bought some festive wrapping paper. The paper had lots of brightly colored fruits silhouetted against a shiny white surface. It was quite jolly.
American rhetoric in black and white. Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By JOE QUEENAN
Recently, as I was putting the finishing touches on a story, an editor suggested that I “give props” to the people I was writing about. The idea came from a superior who felt that I should also give a “shout-out” to the subjects of my essay. It was a suggestion which my editor, after considerable reflection, said he was “down with.”
When the going gets tough, the tough sing ‘Besame Mucho.’ Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JOE QUEENAN
Chilling tales from the literary slush pile.Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By JOE QUEENAN
Last year I was talking to a literary agent and friend about the dire manuscripts I am sometimes asked to read by neighbors, troubled youths, swains of hairdressers, and the man in the dark trench coat who stands at the back of the room at every book-signing, and then thrusts a grimy manuscript into your hands whose first paragraph describes the ritual dismemberment of someone on