Defining Moments

Sherlocked Up There, Isn't He?

Only a few paragraphs into “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Sherlock Holmes awakens Watson with an alarming comment:

“Very sorry to knock you up, Watson,” said he, “but it’s the common lot this morning. Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you.”

“What is it, then – a fire?”

“No; a client. It seems that a young lady has arrived in a considerable state of excitement, who insists upon seeing me…”

For Mrs. Hudson – the widowed landlady – to have been “knocked up” was bad enough. That Holmes could so briskly do the same to Watson was particularly troubling, especially with an excited young lady waiting.
It soon gets weirder:

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…

So Holmes’ tastes seem to have run a bit Village People or Steam Punk. Fair enough.

This is not the only time Arthur Conan Doyle seems to be telling a very different sort of detective story than we typically associate with his iconic characters. Consider this scene from “The Man With The Twisted Lip”:

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… 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… I know where the stable-boy sleeps, and we shall soon have the trap out.”  He chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man…

Holmes Sexy Now THAT’S a party.

These are, of course, completely distorted and unfair readings of the texts. Whatever tawdriness may occur within these pages, it’s rarely the world’s favorite detective at fault. Our dear narrator Watson likewise seems noble enough as well – no matter how many times he ejaculates.

Which he does a LOT, by his own reports.

DefinitionThe issue is language. It evolves over time, and without proper framing we’re easily led astray. A word like “aquiline” doesn’t throw us too badly. While we probably don’t know what it means (“like an eagle,” especially in reference to the shape of one’s nose), we know that we don’t. There’s no misunderstanding because we don’t understand to begin with.

Other terms, like “knocked up,” are more easily misread, having accumulated other meanings with which we may be familiar. The use of “shag” or “trap” wouldn’t automatically raise eyebrows, but by the time everyone’s ejaculating and the landlady is pregnant, we’ve formed a new context into which they’re easily inserted.

Er… as it were.

Sexual words aren’t the only sort which evolve, of course. Consider words involving your intelligence – or lack thereof.

HH GoddardIn the early 20th century, American psychiatrist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard was quite interested in “feeble-mindedness” and its impact on democracy and American culture. He helped popularize IQ Tests in the U.S., and assigned categories to the results.

A score of 75 or higher indicated “normal” intelligence or above. It generally takes 100+ to successfully complete four years of college.

A person in the range of 50 – 75 was labeled a “moron,” a term Goddard coined from the Greek moros – i.e., “dull.” This equated to a mental age of roughly 8 – 12 years old.

An IQ score of 25 – 50 made you an “imbecile,” clearly unqualified to make most decisions for yourself. The American Eugenics movement of the early 20th century pushed for sterilization of folks in this category – an idea embraced by many Progressives as part of their overall effort to improve society.

The potential of eugenics – including selective sterilization – was gaining momentum in the U.S. when some little German fellow took the idea and ran wild with it, taking much of his country with him. We don’t talk about it much since then.

EugenicsAn IQ of 0 – 25 made you an “idiot.” A “dunce” was an idiot who couldn’t learn, while an “ignoramus” was one who hadn’t learned anything yet. Both are different from a “fool,” who was unwise rather than uneducated, or a “cretin” – the oldest of these terms, and specifically biological in nature, often resulting from iodine deficiency.

Yes, the stuff they put in salt. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, right?

Goddard’s rankings meant that someone accused of being an idiot might reply with pride that he was, in fact, an imbecile! Of course, he might then be one-upped by any vain morons nearby.

None of these words are used scientifically today. They were replaced by “mildly retarded,” “retarded,” and “profoundly retarded,” which in turn fell out of favor and were supplanted by even gentler terminology. Given how quickly kids began slamming each other as “specially-abled,” it’s unlikely to stop there.

Language changes, and context matters.

Flintstones Suggestive“He’s a queer sort of fellow” is borderline offensive in 2017, but meant something completely different a few generations ago. “We’ll have a gay old time” would make for a very different Flintstones in 2017 than it did in 1962, and “we’ll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home” could go all kinds of directions. (Insert usual disclaimers here.)

When Ben Franklin wrote to his nephew in 1745 about dealing with his “violent natural inclinations,” the issue was lust, not serial killing. He first encouraged him to marry. “But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable,” Franklin continues, “then I repeat my former Advice…”

It’s easy to infer that Franklin’s nephew had been turning to prostitutes for relief. But “commerce” in this case simply meant “interaction” and “the sex” referred to women – as in the opposite sex, the fairer sex, etc. His nephew may have been fooling around, but he wasn’t paying for it.

I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, but it’s different.

If I reference a “fag,” do I want a cigarette? A bundle of sticks? My British man-servant? Maybe I’m just exhausted – although that would be “fagged.” Or am I hoping to get into a fight with a homosexual? It’s all about context and intent.

David Farragut“Damn the torpedoes” meant “ignore the dangers of underwater mines!” Avoiding a draft might require closing the window, hiding from the army, or refusing to edit a post that just won’t come together. And while you may not be ready for this jelly, thinking you are might get you into quite a jam.

We should pay more attention to how language is used – and with what intent. Meanings can be malleable, and context matters.

Of course, in all of these examples, definitions diversified naturally. The words evolved organically. None were manipulated with the goal of deceiving the reader or listener. Doyle wasn’t making sly sex jokes, and while calling someone an “imbecile” may be cruel, it’s done with the intention they’ll understand what you mean.

Sometimes, though, language is used deceptively on purpose. Words are redefined to distract, and willfully muddle the issues. The technical term for this is stercore excretum – and it’s quite popular in legislative rhetoric and education reform these days.

If something is proposed in the name of “religious freedom,” what does that mean? Which religions? What kinds of freedom? Does “freedom” in this case mean “freedom”? Or does it mean “less freedom for you and more social and political power for me,” dressed up to sound noble?

Euphemisms“School choice” is trendy these days. But what sort of “choice,” exactly? And whose? The schools? Parents? Students? The answers matter.

“Education Savings Accounts”? Are they savings accounts intended to be used for education? Or are they something else being intentionally misrepresented – like calling Twinkies a “professional health management system”?

In government, budget “cuts” are sometimes increases, and “increases” are sometimes cuts. “Refusing to bow to political correctness” is the latest reframing of a childish lack of impulse control and zero accountability for being an ass. Context matters – and so does intent.

Jar Of NothingIn many states, teachers can expect brand new definitions of “pay raise” or “holding harmless,” alongside some weird new uses of “compromise,” “serious effort,” and “valuing public education.” Elected leaders want credit for bringing you such thoughtful gifts, but inside every box is old broken crap that used to be yours anyway, now with glitter vomited all over it. You’re expected to demonstrate a new definition of “thankful” and pay for everything yourself in the name of “acting like a professional.”

We probably can’t change what’s coming. Elections matter. They have consequences. 

But let’s at least fight for clarity in 2017. Let’s insist on precise definitions and shine as much light as we can on intentions and context and discarded knowledge. If we can’t stop those in power from “helping” and “leading” in 2017, let’s at least make them call stuff what it is along the way.

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