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: 1
“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: 2
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: 3
“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: 4
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.
In July 1902 an article by J. Murray Moore in the “Journal of the British Homoeopathic Society” discussed the non-fictional inspiration of the Holmes character, and employed an expression that closely matched the one being traced: 5
My friend and teacher Dr. Joseph Bell, of Edinburgh acquired such an admirable facility in accurately naming the occupations of his dispensary patients by their hands, dress and gestures, that his distinguished pupil, Dr. Conan Doyle, has made him famous in romance as the original of Sherlock Holmes, the “champion detective” of fiction. As that remarkable man would say, “It is the merest elementary knowledge, my dear Watson, to note the pricked and blackened left forefinger of the seamstress; the pyrogallic acid stains of the photographer; the flattened finger-tip of the bricklayer…
In August 1909 an article printed by newspapers in Rochester, New York and Richmond, Virginia described a system proposed by a Harvard astronomer named William Henry Pickering to send signals to the planet Mars using mirrors. The unnamed journalist presenting the speculative idea employed an exact match for the modern “elementary” phrase. Thus, the expression was cliché-like even in 1909: 6
It is such a simple little problem that any one should be able to take a pad and pencil and work it out in ten minutes. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” as Sherlock Holmes was wont to say, “Elementary.”
In July 1910 a New York newspaper acknowledging the “London Globe” printed the phrase in an article about shooting elephants: 7
How do we know? Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.
In August 1910 “The Washington Herald” of Washington, D.C. and the “The Galveston Daily News” of Galveston, Texas printed the phrase and placed it between quotation marks. But the statement was a Sherlockian quintessence and not an actual quotation from Conan Doyle: 8 9
Mr. Holmes always insisted that his methods were simplicity run riot. His most famous deductions invariably were characterized by himself as “elementary my dear Watson; elementary.” Mr. Holmes merely put two and two together; never once did the putting together of two and two fail to make four. The problem was to locate the several twos.
In February 1911 “The Chicago Daily Tribune” of Chicago, Illinois reviewed a play featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Interestingly, the phrase was flipped: 10
It sounded good to hear the somewhat thick headed Dr. Watson gasp, “Mar-vel-ous,” and to hear the sad voiced Sherlock answer, “Merely elementary, my dear Holmes.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” says Sherlock Holmes. And, since it’s not elementary, but rather occult and esoteric, the reader is apt to feel annoyed and to think the expression pure ostentation on Sherlock’s part. However, it isn’t. Detectives all talk that way.
In April 1913 “Everybody’s Magazine” printed a page with the title “Everybody’s Almanack for May” created by the well-known columnist Franklin P. Adams. An event or birthday was associated with each day of the month. The 22nd was listed as Conan Doyle’s birthday in 1859, and the accompanying footnote pointed to the method used to deduce the birthdate: 13
Elementary, my dear Watson. I looked it up.
In 1915 the popular humorist P. G. Wodehouse published the novel “Psmith, Journalist”. In one scene the main character required skills of ratiocination, and he announced to his companion: 14
“I fancy,” said Psmith, “that this is one of those moments when it is necessary for me to unlimber my Sherlock Holmes system.”
Psmith shared his thoughts, and his companion was duly impressed:
“That’s right,” said Billy Windsor. “Of course.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” murmured Psmith.
In 1922 the “New York Tribune” printed a picture of a woman wearing a hat whose style was reminiscent of the great sleuth’s headgear. The photo caption stated: 15
“ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON, ELEMENTARY!” Have you seen the new “Sherlock Holmes” hat for milady? Here’s one of the fore and aft checkered affairs as snapped aloft Miss Winifred Taylor, of New York and London, in Central Park recently.
The reference “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” by top expert Nigel Rees mentioned the appearance of the expression in a movie: 16
In the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes — the first with sound — the final lines of dialogue are:
Watson: Amazing, Holmes!
Holmes: Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.
In conclusion, the expression does not appear in the canon of Sherlock Holmes which consists of 56 short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes did use the word “elementary” when describing his deductions to Watson, and QI believes that the phrase evolved from memories of the tales.
The July 1902 citation contained a close but inexact match, and the August 1909 citation included an exact match. Yet, the identity of the coiner of the phrase remains uncertain. The phrase continues to circulate because it was used in later depictions of Holmes and because it fits the detective’s persona.
Image Notes: Illustration by Sidney Paget showing Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes published in “The Strand Magazine” in December 1892 as part of “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro who wrote about the key early citations in 1893 and 1901 in the “Yale Alumni Magazine”. Also thanks to Victor Steinbok, Laurence Horn, Dan Goncharoff, W. Brewer, Amy West, and George Thompson whose discussion of this topic led QI to formulate this question and compose this article. Special thanks to Christopher Philippo for his valuable feedback including pointing to the recent work of Shapiro.)
Update History: On July 24, 2016 the citations in September 1893 and November 1901 were added.
- 1893 July, The Strand Magazine, Volume 6, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: XX – The Adventure of the Crooked Man by A. Conan Doyle, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1893 September 22, English Mechanic and World of Science, Volume 58, Section: Letters to the Editor, The Natural Forces by Luis, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Column 3, Published for the Strand Newspaper Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1901 September, The Strand Magazine, Volume 22, Number 128, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, Chapter 1, Start Page 123, Quote Page 124, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1901 November 15, The Northampton Mercury, Sherlock Holmes’s Latest!, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Northamptonshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1902 July, Journal of the British Homoeopathic Society, Volume 10, Number 3, The Hand as an Indicator of Disease by J. Murray Moore, Start Page 249, Quote Page 250, John Bale, Sons & Danielsson, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909 August 24, The Times Dispatch, “Signaling to Mars: An Elementary Problem, Says Professor Pickering, of Harvard”, (Acknowledgment to Rochester Post-Express), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Richmond, Virginia. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1910 July 12, Daily People, “In Error”—T. R., Quote Page 3, Column 2, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1910 August 10, The Washington Herald, A Real Sleuth, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1910 August 21, Galveston Daily News Sunday, The Real Sleuth: A Safety Pin in Trousers Gave the Situation Away, Quote Page 21, Column 3, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1911 February 7, Chicago Daily Tribune, Mr. William Gillette Brings Back Sherlock Holmes by Richard Henry Little, Quote Page 14, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1911 April 30, Boston Herald, Section: Boston Herald Magazine, Burns, A Detective from Whom Lecoq Might Learn, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1911 April 2, New York Times, Section: Magazine, Burns, A Detective from Whom Lecoq Might Learn, Quote Page SM1, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1913 April, Everybody’s Magazine, Volume 28, Number 4, Everybody’s Almanack for May by Franklin P. Adams, Quote Page 577, The Ridgway Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1915, Psmith, Journalist by P. G. Wodehouse, Quote Page 140, A. & C. Black, London. (HathiTrust Full View) ↩
- 1922 December 3, New York Tribune, Photo Caption, Quote Page 6, New York. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, edited by Nigel Rees, Section Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Quote Page 177, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) ↩