I recently read The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore. The 28-year-old Mr. Moore is getting a lot of attention for this first novel, which has two different plot lines that unfold in alternating chapters. One is a fictional account of an adventure that Arthur Conan Doyle had around the turn of the 19th century. The other is a modern-day story about the adventures of Harold White. Harold is the newest member of the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only society of Sherlock Holmes scholars and extreme aficionados. (They call the collected novels and stories The Canon.) I hesitate to say anything more about Moore’s book. I love a mystery and loathe having my pleasure in it diminished by any untimely revelations. But if you like historical fiction, or murder mysteries, or both, you will enjoy this book.
Along the Sherlockian path, natch, I learned a new-to-me word, darbies. It was easy to tell from context what they are—handcuffs—but I went looking for more information. It turns out that they are the now-outdated D-shaped barrel lock handcuffs.¹
To see where this word came from, we have to start with the surname Darby, from which it was ultimately derived. The OED explains it thusly: “A southern (not the local) pronunciation of Derby, the name of an English town and shire, which was formerly also sometimes so spelt. Hence an English personal surname, and an appellation of various things named after the place or some person of that surname.”
Back in the late 16th century, there either may or may not have been a noted usurer by the name of Darby. In any case, “Darby’s bands” or “Father Darby’s bands” came to refer to the bonds placed on a debtor if he couldn’t afford to pay up. Within another century or so, the term darbies had come to refer to handcuffs in general. A quote from 1673: “Darbies, irons, or Shackles or fetters for Fellons.”
As much British mystery stuff as I’ve read over my life, I was surprised that I didn’t know this word. The OED doesn’t list it as archaic, but it and other sources identify it as slang. I did some poking around the web to try to get a sense of how the word might be used today. The fact that it’s slang may explain why I didn’t find any instances of it in The Times or the BBC.
I did, however, find one appearance in The Guardian. It was a sarcastic comment by a reader responding to a negative story about a required cycling course for police officers. The reader said, “…it’s highly unlikely that bike-mounted villains will go on for very long being pursued by bike-mounted police at a sedate 20mph until they get overtaken and the darbies are clapped on their wrists.” I also discovered a question about it on the UK blog Quiztime Quizzes, which indicates that it’s not something everyone would know; otherwise it wouldn’t merit trivia question status. The most frequent mention of the word in the online universe, though, referred to “Billy in the Darbies,” a poem that appears at the end of the novella Billy Budd, by Herman Melville. There are many references to it in a British context, often relating to the song of the same name in the Benjamin Britten Billy Budd opera. Wouldn’t it make a great name for a band?
With all this about handcuffs, I couldn’t help but think about the offensive Spanish word for them—esposas. Literally, that means “wives.” I suppose it’s analogous to our “old ball and chain” appellation for one’s wife. I think it’s sad that the popular perception is that one’s wife is a shackle. I feel lucky every day to have my everything-but-wife, The Professor, filling my life with her brilliance, humor, kindness, support, and love.
¹ From handcuffs.org, “A Collector’s Guide to Vintage Handcuffs”
12/2/13 Note: The Quiztime Quizzes blog seems to have disappeared from the web. Its former URL was quiztimeuk.blogsome.com.