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In those days, travellers were very shy of being confidential on a short notice, for anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.

I understand the meaning in general which describes the fact that people didn't trust each other, and were confidential about their privacy. But Dickens uses "shy of being confidential" that seems contradicted to me, because people wanted to be confidential, then why does he use "shy of being confidential"? Also, does "on a short notice" mean people greeting each other at the first time they meet?

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It means you are "reluctant to" (shy of) "withhold your secrets and trust the other" (being confidential) "at such a late notification" (a short notice). –  Calypto May 23 at 18:27
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Today we might express "shy of being confidential" as "cautious about confiding [in others]" or (as Calypto suggests) "reluctant to trust [others]." –  Sven Yargs May 23 at 22:43

5 Answers 5

The phrase "being confidential" means bringing one into confidence - think sharing of secrets or intimate knowledge. Travelers would rarely volunteer more than a general courtesy greeting to strangers, passing by while keeping one wary eye on each other and another on their purse.

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NOW this made sense. I read it when you posted, but somehow at 5 am it made sense. :-) –  One-One May 24 at 0:33

In the context of Dickens' story:

"Shy of being [X]" = "Reluctant to be [X]"

"Confidential" = "Open about oneself" (i.e. 'revealing confidences')

"On a short notice" = "After just a short time". (It has nothing to do with noticing other people or greeting them.)

Nowadays, the idiom is on short notice (mostly US usage) or at short notice (mostly UK usage).

'Shy of' means 'falling short of'.

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Good exposition. –  Drew May 24 at 0:46

Confidential here means giving out confidences - information - rather than withholding them.

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A more modern rephrasing might be

In those days, travellers were slow to trust people they met, since anyone on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.

So travellers were, understandably, guarded and suspicious of strangers. They'd be "keeping things close to the vest".

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If you can know the meaning of "shy of" then you can know the meaning of this sentence.

"shy of" if you are shy of doing something you are unwilling to do it because you are afraid of what might happen

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