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And Besides, “Boil” Rhymes with “Doyle”

January 4, 2012

The rumors are true, ladies and gentlemen. In addition to my other quirks, I am in fact a Sherlockian. I received the Canon in two volumes from the Book of the Month Club sometime in my late youth early adulthood, and they had on me the crack-like effect they have for so many others. I have never owned a calabash pipe, though I once possessed a deerstalker cap. I am a member of my local coven, The Diogenes Club. However, the really big enchilada remains the granddaddy of all Sherlockian or Holmsian (as prevails across the pond) coteries, the Baker Street Irregulars.

In order to gain admittance to that august body, I must needs conduct original research in Holmsiana. A suitable idea for said research has heretofore eluded me–until today. Then, contemplating on some of the bon motsof my learned interlocutors on this erudite site, the perfect idea struck me.

I will be focusing on “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” a short story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in January 1892. (Or exactly 120 years ago, this month.) Briefly summarized, according to the narrative a “carbuncle” of a certain bluish hue is found within the dejecta membraof a Christmas goose, posing a mystery as to its provenance, which is solved through the genius of the world’s first “consulting detective.” Popular interpretation–reinforced by illustrations and television–have led many of the reading public to presuppose that the “carbuncle” in question is a type of precious stone.

However, my contention will be that the language is too ambiguous for us to jump to this highly dubious conclusion. In fact, I will demonstrated that due consideration of the evidence will lead us to a contrary conclusion.

Let us begin with the dictionary entry on carbuncle, where we see two divergent senses:

car·bun·cle /ˈkärˌbəNGkəl/ Noun

1. A multiple boil in the skin, typically infected with staphylococcus.

2. A bright red gem, esp. a garnet cut en cabochon.

Two very different meanings, you will notice, giving rise to two possible readings of the text. I will call these the BOIL reading and the GEM reading, the latter being the aforesaid popular view–which view I will demonstrate to be false–according to the evidence.

Anyway, who ever heard of the word carbuncle being used of a gemstone. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used except in the BOIL sense. I did a check: looked in the index of two or three of my medical textbooks, and I found several uses of carbuncle as boil, and–really–none of the other sense. Needless to say BOIL is the numerically predominant usage, the “default” value of the word. No one would take it in the other sense unless context FORCED them to.

However, GEM-ists frequently maintain a fallacious argument, citing “context”–though they are in reality merely begging the question. Typical attempts a supporting their assumptions consist of listing terms from the narrative that supposedly correlate with the position of carbuncle-as-gem, to wit:

1. “a brilliantly scintillating blue stone”

2. “purity and radiance”

3. “this is treasure trove indeed”

4. “A diamond, sir? A precious stone. It cuts into glass as though it were putty”

5. “It’s more than a precious stone. It is the precious stone”

6. “the gem”

7. “the lady’s jewel-case”

You can see how desperate those of the GEM view are to support their hypothesis. However, every one of those words is capable of being read with a different meaning. So far from clarifying, then, they merely add to the ambiguity.

For instance, it is true that “stone” might lead one to think of a gemstone. But remember, this is a British writer, and the British typically use “stone” as a unit of measure, weight in particular. The text could be merely saying there is a boil of greater than average mass.

“Purity,” too is supposed to be a gemstone-related term. But it is really very generic. It could very easily be applied to a boil. Let’s say it was a particularly pus-free lesion, more serous fluid than white corpuscles. One might very well be inclined to call that “pure.” And I happen to know that blisters and boils often stretch the skin to such a degree that it has a certain sheen. Hence the reference to “radiance.” Nothing could be simpler.

Okay, I know it says “gem” at one point. So it’s a literal “gem,” right? Who hasn’t heard “gem” used metaphorically as a particularly choice specimen of just about anything. “Wow, look at this apple. Ain’t it a beaut?” “Yeah, that’s a regular gem, it is.” We say it all the time.

And remember, Holmes is talking to a doctor. It is perfectly reasonable to employ this idiom for a particularly impressive bit of pathology.

And the same can be done for any of these supposedly definitive terms. The text can, quite simply, be read in more than one way. And who is to say we have to read it the way other people have read it in the past?

Especially since–and here we come to the real evidence–it is contrary to science.

Note the definition above. Yes, it refers to a gem, but specifically a “bright red” one. The text, however, clearly states that this one is blue. That is the most important piece of evidence. Absolutely definitive, in fact.

Science knows (almost) nothing about a gemstone “carbuncle” that is blue. They are invariably red. Generally, the word refers to a garnet. According to Wikipedia, the word garnet comes from 14th century Middle English word gernet meaning ‘dark red.’ This in turn comes from the Latin granatum as in pomum granatum” the pomegranate, which, as everyone knows, has small red, translucent seeds.

The chemical formula for the garnet is X3Z2(TO4)3. This adds nothing to my argument, but throwing out a lot of technical detail makes a person sound smart and well-informed.

On the other hand a large boil can easily distend the skin in such a way as to make it cyanotic. Scientifically, then carbuncle as boil can easily have a blue cast to it.

Ultimately, the point of the story is not about the color of the titular “carbuncle,” but about the WHO and the HOW of the detection of the crime. Over-attention to such minutiae of the textual details, I find, can actually detract from the purpose of the author, to the detriment of the reader.

Nevertheless, it may be helpful to clear up occasional mistaken ideas that have crept into popular thinking over the years. The “Blue Carbuncle” then is not a stone but a lesion. Q.E.D.

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