In the opening paragraph to “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson writes:

The story has, I believe, been told more than once in the newspapers, but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth.

I was curious about this "half-column" reference. After several searches I found many other contextually similar references to both "half-column" and "half column" referring to the printed word, perhaps implying concision or something similar, but no definition for this phrase that fit these contexts.

I do understand how newspapers and simlar periodicals have traditionally been formatted, and being a bit of a graphic design enthusiast I started down that avenue and eventually concluded that the "half" was in reference to the length being half a page. This is supported by similar specifications such as "double half column" and "triple half column" which mean two or three columns wide respectively, and half a page in length, and "quarter column" which is a single column wide and quarter page long.

But then in another instance that I encountered it seems to be used figuratively:

About Printing-house Square, mayhap you may light on an honest man, a squeamish man, a proper moral man, a man that shall talk you Latin by the half-column if you will but hear him.

I am not familiar with the text but apparently it's from "The Kickleburys on the Rhine" by William Makepeace Thackeray:

Given what I could find I drew the conclusion that "half-column" literally means one column of text (about 1-1/2" or 4 cm in width in period relevant print media), half a page long, and can be used metaphorically, perhaps meaning terse.

If anyone has an actual dictionary definition, or source they can cite, then I would grateful for a clarification, expansion, or refutation of my conclusion. I thank you in advance.

  • 2
    Where the half part is so literal a quantifier, no separate dictionary entry for the compound is warranted. You will search long for a dictionary entry for half mile; and, for the same reason, the only definitions for "half column" tend to be those referring to the architectural feature. Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 16:52
  • 4
    In old newspapers, a "column" was the width of the Linotype line and the height of the printed page. A "half column" was only half a page tall.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 16:53
  • The quote seems to literally be about an article in a newspaper, though. That is, it doesn’t seem to be a metaphor, but the implication is that this very brief newspaper article didn’t do the story justice. Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 16:54
  • @BrianDonovan - Has almost nothing to do with architecture.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 16:55
  • @HotLicks My father was a printer in the 1920s. My recollection is that he would agree with you. I have marked up your comment accordingly.
    – Anton
    Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


Q. Is half-column used metaphorically to mean terse?

A. No

Half-column, whether or not it has a specific typographical meaning as suggested in a comment, would just have a plain, straight-forward meaning of half a column of text in a newspaper, an object which would be familiar to readers at the time these books were published.

This has no absolute value of large and small: its value is only revealed when used in comparison, as the two extracts clearly show.

In the first extract from a detective story, a half-column in a newspaper might refer to a report of a criminal trial, which is obviously much shorter than the account in the novel in front of the reader. However this is just a straight comparison presented in a paragraph of 50 words — not a metaphor.

In the second extract the comparison is only implied, but it is clearly to the amount of Latin the average (educated) man could talk, which even at the time would likely be no more than a line. Thus, a half-column of Latin indicates an excess, as is made clear by the final “if you will but hear him” (you wouldn’t).

So, no. It’s just a glass — it may be half full, or half empty.

  • Well, as the question is still here, I've changed my comments into an answer.
    – David
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 17:14

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