Elementary, does it speak for itself?

Today — the 158th birthday of Sherlock Holmes (fictional character for those who were wondering) — seemed the perfect day to launch my blog.

The word ‘elementary’ appears in the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exactly eight times while ‘my dear Watson’ occurs more than a hundred times, but they never appear together.  People tend to look for the pithy when trying to communicate the complex, and the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” suits that goal perfectly. It captures Holmes’ attitude rather than his actual words; a further point, Holmes is lost without his Boswell, or Watson, so the word ‘elementary’ alone does not embody the character.  I managed to locate a smattering of the phrase in various publications long before the 1929 film ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ starring Clive Brook that is often purported to introduce the phrase to the public, so I hope to shed much light on the question: Where did the phrase originate from?

The first occurrence of the word in the Sherlock Holmes stories comes in the very first, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ — initially published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual — recorded by Watson from a magazine article titled, rather presumptuously, ‘The Book of Life’ that, we find out later, was written by Sherlock Holmes.  “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”  In the September 1891 Strand Magazine, the word occurs for a second time in the fifth story ‘A Case of Identity.’  After recapping his minor deductions from the appearance of Miss Mary Sutherland, Holmes states dismissively, “All this is amusing, though rather elementary, but I must go back to business, Watson.”  The word next emerges in the twenty-second story titled ‘The Crooked Man’ first published in the July 1893 Strand Magazine.  In perhaps the occurrence most closely capturing the attitude of the phrase, Holmes deduces Watson’s busy schedule by observing the state of his boots.  ‘”Excellent!” I cried.  “Elementary,” said he.’  A mere five months later Watson announces that no more stories of his friend’s adventures will be forthcoming.

My speculation (for I never guess) is that the phrase arose as one of those topics that boiled over while a long-suffering public languished for the return of Sherlock Holmes.  That return may never have taken place had Conan Doyle not reconsidered in 1901 while visiting Dartmoor with his friend Fletcher Bertram Robinson who shared with him the local legends of a hell-hound.  The phrase may have come of the fascination that the public must have harboured for the mysterious character of Sherlock Holmes and his penchant for the grotesque and complex little problems that came his way.  The actor William Gillette — co-author of the play Sherlock Holmes — is often credited with giving the phrase its birth in the very late 1800’s.  Though there are no surviving scripts containing the phrase, he certainly may be one of those who started the ball rolling.  The earliest occasion of the phrase found in my research comes twice in the London Municipal year book and public services directory for 1898 on pages xcii (92) and 352.

The word elementary does not materialise again in the Conan Doyle stories until it appears twice in the twenty-seventh Holmes story the serialised novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ with the parts first published in The Strand Magazine for August and September 1901.  In referring to Watson’s deductions and his own examination of the absent-minded Dr. Mortimer’s walking stick, Holmes states in chapter 1, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee.”  And again in chapter 4 whilst explaining his special hobby of identifying newspaper print, “The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime, though I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News.”  Not until the forty-first Holmes story ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ first published in August of 1908 did the word reappear. Even so, Holmes only uses it to describe the book on botany he allegedly is using to pass the time in the Surrey countryside.  The phrase occurs once again in chapter 19 of the P. G. Wodehouse novel called Psmith, Journalist, which was first serialised in ‘The Captain’ magazine from October 1909 thru February 1910, and subsequently published in 1915 as a book.

In the forty-sixth Holmes story, ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ published in the last month of 1911, Holmes again used the word when he deduces Watson’s actions from observing his boots. More specifically he speaks of the elementary classes of deduction when describing their newness and peculiar double bowed tying.

We next find a minor flurry of publications using the phrase starting in 1913.

1913 Everybody’s Magazine, volume 28, page 577.

1913 University of Wisconsin’s Proceedings of the First National Newspaper Conference, Volume 1, page 146.

1916 Modern Hospital, volume 7, page 74.

1919 The Weekly review, volume 1, page 92.

1922 ‘The Secret Adversary’ by Agatha Christie, chapter 17.

The eighth and final time Holmes uses the word elementary comes in the fifty-sixth Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ penned by Holmes himself and not published until October 1926.  Holmes writes the word to describe the case presented by his client, Mr. James M. Dodd.

I am certain more occurrences of the phrase might surface with a proper search of the Internet and other sources, but, for now, these are all the clay we have. Holmes does say “Exactly, my dear Watson,” in three different tales though the first of those does not appear in The Strand Magazine until August 1904. Perhaps Conan Doyle was trying to divert attention from the phrase. If that is the case, the plan apparently failed. So the next time someone tries to advance the fallacy of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” you can now present them the facts just like Sherlock Holmes.

Happy birthday, Sherlock Holmes!

NEXT WEEK: Watson’s servant girl? in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’

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