I am quoting from the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Greek Interpreter by Arthur Conan Doyle:

His visitor, on entering his rooms, had drawn a life-preserver from his sleeve, and had so impressed him with the fear of instant and inevitable death that he had kidnapped him for the second time.

I found this entry for the exact expression in Farlex, but it says :"To please and affect someone by exhibiting a particular skill or manner.", while in the quote, it's clear that the victim (Mr. Melas) is not impressed with something pleasant or nice. It would be a great convenience if you could shed some light.

3 Answers 3


This is a meaning that impress had at its origins:

late 14c., "have a strong effect on the mind or heart, to stamp deeply in the mind," [whether it is by something positive or negative - it is neutral] from Latin impressus, past participle of imprimere "press into or upon, stamp," also figurative, from assimilated form of in- "into, in, on, upon" (from PIE root *en "in") + premere "to press, hold fast, cover, crowd, compress" (from PIE root *per- (4) "to strike"). Literal sense of "to apply with pressure, make a permanent image in, indent, imprint" is from early 15c. in English. (Etymonline)

Even nowadays, impress is not restricted to positive favorable meanings. It can also mean:

to produce a vivid impression of (M-W)

Here is an example from Under the Whip by George Bernard Shaw:

Boys were flogged at boundaries, to impress the boundaries on their memory.

Note that a negative meaning has been preserved in impressionable: a person can be impressed by something which can have a positive or negative impact on them.


The usage you cite is an archaic one. In general usage today, to impress someone is positive.

However, to impress something ON someone is to make someone aware of something, and that can be serious/negative. 'I impressed on him the importance of following the fire safety rules'. Hope that helps!


I might say that a musician impressed me with her virtuoso performance. However, that is not the sense of "impressed ... with" that Conan Doyle intended in the quoted passage.

The obviously intended meaning was that the visitor impressed upon Mr. Melas a fear of instant and inevitable death. Conan Doyle's use of prepositions with the word "impress" is just a little different than the usual usage nowadays. The meaning of "impress" here is the same as the sense

  1. To impart a strong or vivid impression of something in the mind of someone

from the later part of this definition of impress on. Certainly a bad thing can make as strong an impression as a good thing, although we might prefer to make good impressions in most cases.

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