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The View from the East End (32)

By Inspector Hopkins

February 12 , 2006

Good Old Abbreviations

Some people think that the greatest invention of the past century was the airplane or the automobile, which has advanced transportation. Others say the telephone, or radio, or television, since they advanced communications all over the planet.  Still others say it is the discovery of the microchip, which has revolutionized all of the above.

But for me, one of the best inventions ever was the introduction and use of the four-letter abbreviations which we use on a daily basis in our discussions of the Canon!

They were published in 1947 by Professor Jay Finley Christ in his book “The Irregular Guide to Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street”.   They started to get popular during the following decade, and despite some current opinions to the contrary, their usage does not imply any special knowledge or aptitude, nor does it suggest any sort of distancing between newer and older Sherlockians.

Christ’s concept is quite simple:  just take the first four letters of the main word in the title of each story, and ignore the “The Adventure of” part. There are lists of these abbreviations almost everywhere, including this site.  With a little practice, their usage becomes almost second nature, and once a newcomer has read through the Canon, he or she will find these abbreviations most useful when referring to different stories.

Since there is so much comparison made between different stories, they will find that it is much less cumbersome that writing out, or reading, the full titles. The use of these shorthand codes streamlines everything written about our heroes. They help to organize the Canon and are extremely useful to use in lists and in databases. With one glance, the brain translates the four letters into a complete story title.  The story title then conjures up images of the what, who, where, when, and how of each Canonical tale.

Now, with so much interest in Sherlockian pastiche and especially the unpublished cases that are so often mentioned, wouldn’t it be great if somebody also invented four-letter abbreviations for them, too?

Well, thanks to the work done by Philip K. Jones that is exactly what has happened! 

This formidable Sherlockian, known as “An Ill-dressed Vagabond” on the Hounds of the Internet, has been working tirelessly to sort and organize much of the pastiche and the unpublished cases involving Sherlock Holmes. He has developed a huge database for the pastiche which will soon be published on the web.  In his recent paper, “The Untold Tales -Analyzed”, he explains that scholars have identified some 160 of these Tales, although he himself has trimmed this number down somewhat. He has further arranged these Untold Tales into five distinct logical Categories. Quite well done.

Practically everyone who is now reading these words is aware of my efforts to sort and organize the Canon in my “Just the Facts” database featured right here on Sherlockpeoria.  This is an ongoing project which grows and meanders in various directions as it develops into what I intend to be a useful Sherlockian tool. I am happy to report that I have lately had the pleasure of working closely with Mr. Jones in regards to it, and in the upcoming Version 7.0 of this Database, most of these “unpublished cases” will now be further sorted, categorized and labeled using his approach and nomenclature. 

Now, for example, instead of saying something like, “that unpublished case that Holmes referred to in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ when he spoke to Wilson who was the manager of a local messenger office in Regent Street”, we can simply write: “MESS was referred to in HOUN”.  Or instead of saying, “the other case that Holmes was working on when he was protecting Abrahams and he couldn’t leave London in ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ ”, we could just write: “Holmes was involved with ABRA during LADY”.  These abbreviations appear to have some real potential.

 Of course, all of the more familiar Untold Tales will have a four-letter abbreviation of their own: “the case of Vamberry the wine merchant” will be known as “VAMB”, “the singular affair of the aluminum crutch” will be abbreviated as “ALUM”, and so forth. 

As we all know, there are only so many stories in the Canon. With the evolving interest in satisfying our hunger for more Sherlock Holmes, more and more of us will likely be turning to pastiche and to filling in the blanks for all those tantalizing tales mentioned, but not published, by Watson.

Mr. Jones’s clever and concise system of abbreviating and organizing the Untold Tales should encourage further exploration and study of them!  This in turn may spark more organized efforts to continue, add to, and improve the efforts at pastiche. To request a copy of his paper, send an e-mail to him at


If Sherlock Holmes were around today, he’d approve.

In my mind, I can already hear him saying, “Good old abbreviations!  You can’t beat ‘em.”


Until next time, and thanking you for your attention, I remain,


Yours faithfully,