Sherlock Holmes? Arthur Conan Doyle? J. Murray Moore? Franklin P. Adams? P. G. Wodehouse? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes was explaining to his good friend John A. Watson the nature of his latest deduction he supposedly employed the well-known phrase:
Elementary, my dear Watson.
I was astonished to learn that Holmes never said this phrase in any of the canonical stories and novels. Is that true?
Quote Investigator: Yes, Sherlock Holmes never said the above phrase in any of the classic tales written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the phrase was synthesized by the readers and enthusiasts of the legendary detective and assigned to him. The character was later given the line in a movie script that was not penned by Conan Doyle.
The canonical Holmes did use the word “elementary” when speaking with Watson. For example, Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” published in “The Strand Magazine” contained a scene in which Holmes carefully examined Watson’s appearance and concluded that he had recently been busy with several visits to medical patients. Holmes explained his reasoning to Watson, and the doctor was impressed. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
“Excellent!” I cried.
“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.
In September 1893 the journal “English Mechanic and World of Science” printed a letter to the editor that contained a bit of word play that seemed to be based on the phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow”. The jest may have been referring to a prototypical interaction of Holmes and Watson, but the connection was uncertain:
He has also forgotten to deduct the calories that have to be supplied to the “coal” to raise it to the temperature at which it combines with oxygen. All this is quite elementary, my dear “Fellow of the Chemical Society.”
In 1901 the serialization of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” began in “The Strand Magazine”. Holmes examined a walking stick using a convex lens and concluded that the owner of the stick had a dog which was “larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff”. He spoke the word “elementary” while presenting his conclusions to Watson:
“Interesting, though elementary,” said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. “There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions.”
In November 1901 “The Northampton Mercury” of Northamptonshire, England printed a short parody featuring the characters Shylock Combs and Potson. The brilliant ratiocinator Combs was able to determine the direction of the wind outside by observing the displacement of Potson’s mustache:
He noticed my amazement and smiled that wonderful smile of his.
“Elementary, my dear Potson,” he said; “I observed the left-hand side of your moustache inclined about 47 5/8 degrees towards the west, and coming as I did from Butcher-street I at once deduced from which quarter the wind was blowing.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.