I am quoting from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Black Peter:

See here, mister, said he, I make no complaint of being man-handled in this fashion, but I would have you call things by their right names. You say I murdered Peter Carey; I say I killed Peter Carey, and there’s all the difference. Maybe you don’t believe what I say. Maybe you think I am just slinging you a yarn.

It seems from the context that it means that the speaker (Patrick Cairns) meant that he is not making up the story but I couldn't find any entry for the entire expression in any dictionary although there are many for the word 'yarn' which mean 'a tale' or 'an untrue story'.

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    "spinning a yarn" is a common expression. Perhaps it's an OCR misreading of "Maybe you think I'm just spinning you a yarn." Jan 25, 2023 at 9:33
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    It's defined in encyclo.co.uk. Jan 25, 2023 at 12:55
  • It means "Maybe you think I'm lying to you". The phrase "tell a story" can always refer to making up a story instead of telling the truth. Jan 25, 2023 at 15:59
  • @OldBrixtonian "spinning a yarn" is a literal process in textile production as well as the metaphorical invention of a story
    – Henry
    Jan 26, 2023 at 10:01

2 Answers 2


The expression is of nautical origin and dates to the beginning of 19th c.

yarn n.

[the stories told by sailors during the lengthy processes of making ropes; note Hall Caine, The Deemster (1897): ‘Without motive a story is not a novel, but only a yarn’: in other words, a yarn implies the dichotomy between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ writing] (orig. naut.)

  1. a story, esp. a long and poss. implausibly wonderful one.
  • 1821 [UK] J. Burrowes Life in St George’s Fields 13: You see what a tough yarn the Doctor was spinning.

sling a yarn (v.) sling v. (2a)

to tell a story.

  • 1876 [US] B. Harte Gabriel Conroy II 302: Well, you jess stands up afore the jedge, and you slings ’em a yarn.

  • 1889 [Aus] H. Lawson ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in Roderick (1967–9) I 57: I’ll sling you a yarn worth more nor two / Such pumped-up yarns as that.

(Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

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    I should've checked Green! +1 Jan 25, 2023 at 10:57
  • Definitely more accurate reference than what I have found. Well deserved +1.
    – fev
    Jan 25, 2023 at 13:36

Sling a yarn is slang for:

to relate a story: C.20: s. >, ca. 1930, coll. Cf. sling language, q.v.—2. Hence, to tell a lie: 1904 (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge · 2006)

This seems to be a usage particular to Sir Conan Doyle. This Ngram will show a striking increase in usage after the year 2000, and when you look at the hits in Google Books, they are all from commentaries on this passage. See the hits from 2018 to 2019, for example.

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    It's interesting that Eric Partridge's only example is the one mentioned in the question! Maybe Conan Doyle coined it/made a mistake. Jan 25, 2023 at 9:52
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    Interesting. I don't know a lot about Conan Doyle's use of slang, but it's not uncommon for writers either to make up slang or to use variations. Sling has various slang meanings, from selling drugs (which is might be more recent) to its use in cocktails, which seems to precede the Singapore Sling (gin sling) of 1915.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:00
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    In fact it's a hapax legomenon! It only appears in the Conan Doyle story. Doyle either invented it or, more likely, just got 'spinning a yarn' wrong! And Eric Partridge was easily fooled! :-) Jan 25, 2023 at 10:06
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    @OldBrixtonian I doubt that such a prolific author would make a mistake. Coyle is quirky in his expressions, he probably twisted the expression for his own purpose.
    – fev
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:12
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    @StuartF In informal BE sling can also mean to throw or drop something carelessly or casually.
    – fev
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:15

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