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.’

160 responses to “Elementary, does it speak for itself?

  1. My lover and my spouse and i? meters uncertain why yet this excellent website will be loading incredibly slow to me. Is anybody possessing this matter or perhaps this a difficulty on our conclusion? My companion and i? ll keep coming back afterwards when the issue nonetheless exists.

  2. I have to declare that we was changed by style that you just express here. Is actually wonderful just how you can easily stay thoughts in to a coherent whole, that the man have got this kind of feelings.

  3. Have you considered including several social bookmarking links to these blogs. At the very least for youtube.

  4. Hello there! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for your great information you have got right here on this post. I’ll be coming back to your web site for more soon.

  5. Re: Whoever created the remark that this was a good web site genuinely needs to get their brain evaluated.

  6. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented on your post. They’re really convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very short for starters. Could you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I do believe in keeping each post simple and focussed on a limited topic, which leads to shorter posts.

  7. Whenever I at first commented I clicked the Notify me whenever new comments are added checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive 4 email messages with the identical comment.

  8. Hey, I just hopped over to your web-site via StumbleUpon. Not somthing I might normally read, but I appreciated your views none the less. Thanks for making something worthy of reading through.

  9. Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! By the way, how can we communicate?

    • Thanks for the kind words. I hope you will return for more. The e-mail address is found on the About page linked at the top right of this page [OldPatricksEmail@gmail.com], and I do check it periodically.

  10. After looking into a few of the articles on your blog, I truly appreciate your way of writing a blog. I saved it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back in the near future. Please check out my web site as well and let me know what you think.

    • Thank you for the compliments. Please do return. I like the design of your website, but, unfortunately, I am not fluent in Spanish.

  11. Hey there, I just hopped over to your web page via StumbleUpon. Not somthing I would usually read, but I appreciated your views none the less. Thank you for making some thing well worth reading through.

    • I am not sure why you are not picking up the feed. Perhaps it is because the last half of 2012 nothing was posted. Please continue to try as I value every subscriber.

  12. Definitely believe that which you stated. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the web the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people consider worries that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  13. Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any points or suggestions? Appreciate it

  14. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have truly loved surfing around your weblog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I’m hoping you write again soon!

  15. I used to be recommended this website by means of my cousin. I’m not positive whether this post is written by him as no one else know such specific approximately my trouble. You’re wonderful! Thank you!

  16. Hi, Neat post. There’s a problem together with your site in web explorer, could check this… IE nonetheless is the market chief and a big section of people will leave out your excellent writing due to this problem.

  17. Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this web site wants far more consideration. I’ll probably be again to learn way more, thanks for that info.

  18. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

  19. Wow that was remarkable. I just wrote an very elongated remark except subsequent to I clicked suggest my comment didn’t illustrate cheery. Grrrr… anyway I’m not prose all that over once more. In any case, immediately hunted to declare admirable blog!

  20. Very good written story. It will be useful to everyone who utilizes it, including myself. Keep doing what you are doing – for sure i will check out more posts.

  21. Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. However think of if you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and clips, this website could definitely be one of the very best in its niche. Great blog!

    • I have used some images when I felt in necessary, but there are few, if any, relevant video clips to use. Thank you for your kind words.

  22. I’m writing to let you know of the great experience my wife’s daughter had viewing yuor web blog. She picked up too many details, not to mention how it is like to possess a very effective teaching nature to get certain people clearly fully grasp certain very confusing matters. You actually surpassed visitors’ desires. I appreciate you for displaying those important, safe, edifying and fun thoughts on your topic to Tanya.

  23. Excellent question: will be the format within your site was performed to be able to obtain or even is offered typical? Mainly because I truly loved and even employ something such as that on your side. Thanks beforehand for the reply.

  24. In case all of the web-sites are associated with these quality since yours, typically the network was going to a great spot! Fantastic job, sustain!

  25. Together along with all which seems that they are building inside this exacting be important substance, a considerable percentage regarding details of view are generally slightly radical. But, I appologize, except My partner and i can certainly not subscribe representing your whole submission, each and every one whether it is refreshing almost certainly nobody the less. It looks to live intelligent to everybody that your exacting opinions are commonly not unavoidably finally restructured down with in statement an individual are typically your do-it-yourself not completely selected connecting your point. All the rage almost several aftermath Used to achieve be thankful for evaluation the item.

  26. You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I in finding this topic to be actually one thing that I feel I would by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very large for me. I am looking ahead to your subsequent submit, I’ll try to get the grasp of it!

  27. Obtaining this site produced all the work I did to discover it appear like nothing. The reason being that this is such an informative post. I wanted to thank you for this unique read with the subject. I certainly savored every little bit of it and I’ve you bookmarked to take a look at new stuff you post.

    • Thank you very much. I did not see this information compiled anywhere else on the web, so I thought I should share it. The idea for this post was really a whim!

  28. I simply want to tell you that I am all new to blogging and site-building and truly liked your blog. More than likely I’m likely to bookmark your blog post . You certainly come with really good articles and reviews. Kudos for sharing with us your webpage.