Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Watson and Other Excitable Characters - Ejaculations in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

Hopefully, this heading did not make you ejaculate with shock! Recently, I watched the first episode of the QI J-season, and after a particularly entertaining passage on language and literature, I ejaculated with joy. However, I did so not in the most common modern sense of the word, but in the late 18th century sense. The e comes from latin out (of) while iaculor is to throw or hurl (like a javelin), so while re-ject means to throw/send something back and e-ject means to throw/send something out, an ejaculation used to be just any kind of outburst.

In this particular QI episode, the use of the word in the Sherlock Holmes canon was the object of much mirth. There are 23 ejaculations in the canon, all of which presumably intended to be verbal, but like imagining Frodo and Sam as lovers in The Lord of the Rings, once you've thought it you can't un-think it and you're scarred for life:

This is just a few, though, and so you might ask, "Surely, this must be something for someone with a blog on literature! Why not the lot?" And you did, to which I reply, "Enjoy!"

You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him—all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”
“Wonderful!” I ejaculated.
“Commonplace,” said Holmes
Simple as it was, there were several most instructive points about it.”
“Simple!” I ejaculated.
“Well, really, it can hardly be described as otherwise,” said Sherlock Holmes, smiling at my surprise.
“NOW, WATSON,” said Holmes, rubbing his hands, “we have half an hour to ourselves. Let us make good use of it. My case is, as I have told you, almost complete; but we must not err on the side of over-confidence. Simple as the case seems now, there may be something deeper underlying it.”
“Simple!” I ejaculated.
(Watson, in response to his soon-to-be fiancée)
It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I ejaculated from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.

- A Study in Scarlet -

“What on earth does this mean?” I ejaculated after I had twice read over the extraordinary announcement.
Holmes chuckled and wriggled in his chair, as was his habit when in high spirits

- The Red-Headed League -

This observation of his had the natural effect of removing any traces of doubt which might have remained in the minds of the coroner's jury.”
“It was a confession,” I ejaculated 

- The Boscombe Valley Mystery -

While she was walking in this way down Swandam Lane, she suddenly heard an ejaculation or cry, and was struck cold to see her husband looking down at her and, as it seemed to her, beckoning to her from a second-floor window. The window was open, and she distinctly saw his face, which she describes as being terribly agitated. He waved his hands frantically to her, and then vanished from the window so suddenly that it seemed to her that he had been plucked back by some irresistible force from behind.
With these he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him. In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features. So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment. The pipe was still between his lips, the smoke still curled upward, and the room was full of a dense tobacco haze, but nothing remained of the heap of shag which I had seen upon the previous night.
“Awake, Watson?” he asked.
“Game for a morning drive?”
“Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-boy sleeps

- The Man with the Twisted Lip -

 Sherlock Holmes sat up with a whistle. “By Jove, Peterson!” said he, “this is treasure trove indeed. I suppose you know what you have got?”
“A diamond, sir? A precious stone. It cuts into glass as though it were putty.”
“It's more than a precious stone. It is the precious stone.”
“Not the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle!” I ejaculated.

- The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle -

The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had framed himself in the aperture. His costume was a peculiar mixture of the professional and of the agricultural, having a black top-hat, a long frock-coat, and a pair of high gaiters, with a hunting-crop swinging in his hand. 

- The Adventure of the Specled Band -

“What on earth has that to do with it?” I ejaculated.

- The Adventure of the Copper Beeches -

“The young imp cannot be found,” said Dr. Trevelyan; “the maid and the cook have just been searching for him.”
Holmes shrugged his shoulders.
“He has played a not unimportant part in this drama,” said he. “The three men having ascended the stairs, which they did on tiptoe, the elder man first, the younger man second, and the unknown man in the rear—”
“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.

- The Resident Patient -

“Surely the gate was open!” ejaculated Phelps.
“Yes, but I have a peculiar taste in these matters. I chose the place where the three fir-trees stand, and behind their screen I got over without the least chance of any one in the house being able to see me. I crouched down among the bushes on the other side, and crawled from one to the other—witness the disreputable state of my trouser knees—until I had reached the clump of rhododendrons just opposite to your bedroom window. There I squatted down and awaited developments.
“The blind was not down in your room, and I could see Miss Harrison sitting there reading by the table. It was quarter-past ten when she closed her book, fastened the shutters, and retired.
“I heard her shut the door, and felt quite sure that she had turned the key in the lock.”
“The key!” ejaculated Phelps 
(and finally)
A moment later the servant's door was opened, and Mr. Joseph Harrison stepped out into the moonlight.”
“Joseph!” ejaculated Phelps

- The Naval Treaty -

Once or twice it seemed to me that I had seen the same figure before, and I especially noticed two men who appeared to be sheltering themselves from the wind in the doorway of a house some distance up the street. I tried to draw my companion's attention to them, but he gave a little ejaculation of impatience and continued to stare into the street.

- The Adventure of the Empty House – see my earlier post featuring this short story!

As Holmes turned up the lamp the light fell upon a card on the table. He glanced at it, and then, with an ejaculation of disgust, threw it on the floor. I picked it up and read:—
Appledore Towers, 
“Who is he?” I asked.
“The worst man in London,” Holmes answered

- The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton -

Amid the droning of the wind there had come the stamping of a horse's hoofs and the long grind of a wheel as it rasped against the kerb. The cab which I had seen had pulled up at our door.
“What can he want?” I ejaculated, as a man stepped out of it.
“Want! He wants us. And we, my poor Watson, want overcoats and cravats and galoshes, and every aid that man ever invented
Tut-tut! Well, then, these tracks upon the grass, were they coming or going?”
“It was impossible to say. There was never any outline.”
“A large foot or a small?”
“You could not distinguish.”
Holmes gave an ejaculation of impatience.

- The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez -

This brought his hand within a few inches of the broken end of the rope, but it was not this so much as the bracket itself which seemed to engage his attention. Finally he sprang down with an ejaculation of satisfaction.
“It's all right, Watson,” said he.

- The Adventure of the Abbey Grange -

My visit was specially made to the good Mr. Ames, with whom I exchanged some amiabilities, which culminated in his allowing me, without reference to anyone else, to sit alone for a time in the study.”
“What! With that?” I ejaculated.
“No, no, everything is now in order. You gave permission for that, Mr. Mac, as I am informed. The room was in its normal state, and in it I passed an instructive quarter of an hour.”

- The Valley of Fear - 

In the bedroom he made a rapid cast around and ended by throwing open the window, which appeared to give him some fresh cause for excitement, for he leaned out of it with loud ejaculations of interest and delight.

- The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot - 

(Holmes misses Watson…)
And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.

- The Blanched Soldier -


What do you think?

Once more with the etymology! Is the fact that the predominant meaning of words change, sometimes with comic results, the most appealing part of language, or is it something else? According to Queer  and Feminist Theory, a lot of literature can be read from a new angle, as with Lord of the Rings and now clearly the Holmes canon. Have you read anything lately where a different understanding of the genders and gender roles alters your understanding of the text?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: As given


  1. I must confess to not knowing much about Queer Theory, or having any particularly strong opinions on subsequent re-readings of texts previously considered 'innocent', but I can say that I have hugely enjoyed discovering every single one of these ejaculations.

  2. Hi Nick, and thanks for commenting on my blog!
    I will readily agree that Queer Theory is not my strong field either. However, I find it interesting how modern sensibilities, and in this case modern vocabulary, influences our understanding of older texts. The distance between Doyle's writing and our (slightly perverted) reading displays one of the most beautiful aspects of literature, in my opinion; new generations of readers can find new and different pleasure in reading it. While remaining constant while everything around it changes, literature evolves.

    That being said, it was a thorough delight and something of a guilty pleasure writing this post, so I am glad to see you enjoyed it too!