I got curious about the word curious, so I looked it up. Yes, I did that before I started writing these articles, but now I’m doing it for readership, not just for fun. I’ll look things up so you don’t have to — but I hope to show you how much fun it can be.
“Curious” has roots in Middle English, Old French and Latin, which may account for its divergent meanings. Here’s how my Webster’s Dictionary defines it:
“1. strongly desirous to learn or know.
2. unnecessarily inquisitive; prying.
3. accurate, careful, detailed.
4. rare, singular” (Hey! That’s English for unique!) “strange; arousing curiosity; as a curious fact.
5. very careful; scrupulous; fastidious (Obs.)”
It’s thanks to that fourth definition that one should always have an “about” ready when using the word “curious.” Say “I’m curious” in the hearing of the neighborhood wit and, unless you add your “about” very quickly, you’re likely to get told “Yes, you are.”
(That’s OK — just try to resist temptation when the wit tells you “I’m sorry.”)
A “cabinet of curiosities,” an old term for anything from a personal collection to a museum, survives in modern usage as a curio cabinet. (Don’t see the connection? You would if you saw my dictionary stand — next to my curio cabinet.)
Of course, my fellow admirers of Sherlock Holmes (of whom I know at least two as regular readers of these items) will know already about the most famous use of “curious” in detective stories, perhaps in all of literature. (Sorry, “Curious George,” not you, you little monkey!)
In “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells the story of Sherlock Holmes’ investigation of the kidnapping of a racehorse and the murder of its trainer. Other horses and even some injured sheep figure prominently in the tale, but it’s an unobtrusive dog who provides Holmes with his best clue. The inspector on the case asks Holmes:
” ‘Is there any other point to which you wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”
I can still remember paging frantically back through that story for the first time, looking, well, curiously for any other reference to that dog. There is one — eventually, I marked it in pencil, as I saw when drafting this post.
Even if you don’t know the story of “Silver Blaze” well — a situation I recommend fixing, posthaste — you’re likely to have read and heard about that dog who “did nothing in the night-time.” It’s sometimes modernized (Sigh!) as “the dog who didn’t bark” or worse.
All of those long descriptions share something curious in the odd, rare sense — a rare shortcoming by Conan Doyle in the careful, detailed sense.
The dog in “Silver Blaze” never gets mentioned by name.
That is the curious shortcoming.
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