Defending a word, as is my wont

Defending a word, as is my wont

Our old chambers had been left unchanged through the supervision of Mycroft Holmes and the immediate care of Mrs. Hudson. As I entered I saw, it is true, an unwonted tidiness, but the old landmarks were all in their place. There were the chemical corner and the acid-stained, deal-topped table. There upon a shelf was the row of formidable scrap-books and books of reference which many of our fellow-citizens would have been so glad to burn. The diagrams, the violin-case, and the pipe-rack—even the Persian slipper which contained the tobacco—all met my eyes as I glanced round me.

— From “The Adventure of the Empty House,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1903; part of “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”

I have written elsewhere about my opinion of Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Empty House” as the best short story, period. But over the stressful weekend just past, I listened to the late, great Edward Hardwicke reading the story on one of my audio CDs. (This is a momentous story, the first one in which Hardwicke appeared opposite Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in a series of TV adventures.)

Hardwicke’s diction is as precise in the recording as those who remember his Watson will recall. But as the end of the story approaches with the italicized paragraph at the beginning of this post, I always smile at one small, loveable slip. Perhaps it’s a double entendre — two possible meanings in one phrase. I can always swear that he refers to “an unwanted tidiness.” As my fellow readers will doubtless agree, the messy decor of the rooms at 221B Baker Street definitely meant that Holmes didn’t want tidiness.

But wont, sans apostrophe, is my Word Worth Defending today. lists it as “formal, humorous” (both, Seriously) for “one’s customary behavior in a particular situation.” Unwonted, then, is what might be called “uncustomary” (if we didn’t have “unusual” to do the job).

There are so many descriptions of messes in the descriptions of the Baker Street sitting room that I can certainly forgive Edward Hardwicke for talking about “an unwanted tidiness.” In this case, at least, unwonted meant unwanted.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.


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  • I always liked that word.

  • In reply to Grundoon:

    So do I. Thank you!

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