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A Study in Sherlock: Holmesian homages for Benedict’s birthday

Sherlock Holmes

It’s the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch’s birthday today, so I’m told. Most recently seen on the big screen playing an iconic Star Trek baddie, Cumberbatch has enthralled viewers and theatre audiences as characters ranging from Vincent van Gogh and Stephen Hawking to Frankenstein’s monster and a Tolkienian dragon. But one of his most successful roles to date, and perhaps the one with which he is most immediately associated, is that of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock. To celebrate this auspicious day, let’s take a look at some Holmesian language.

Holmes, Sweet Holmes

Holmesian itself is as good a place as any to start. An adjective used to liken someone or something to Sherlock Holmes, it appears in the early 1900s, often describing people of great intellect or deductive skills. The fuller form “Sherlock Holmesian” may be used as an alternative, and in 1902 the periodical The Cambrian seems to have coined the wonderful tongue-twister of a compound “Sherlock-Holmesianism” in its July issue. If one is feeling more familiar, and apt to refer to the great man by his first name, then the adjective Sherlockian is an option, as used in 1959 by the periodical The Listener, describing the “exact, devoted, Sherlockian tenacity” of a piece of detective work. Sherlock can also be used as a verb and a noun: the former refers to the act of investigating, while the latter is used to designate a private detective, or more generally a person of great intelligence and skill in solving mysteries. The Strand explained in 1906 that “for anyone to be described as a Sherlock Holmes is for all the world to understand that he is an individual gifted with an extraordinary sense of logical deduction”. Indeed, the detective’s full name was used in this sense as early as 1896, in the novel The Little Larrikin by Ethel Turner: “It took her nearly five minutes to wonder sufficiently at him… and call him a Sherlock Holmes.” The first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887, so it had taken fewer than ten years for the hero’s name to become a byword in popular culture.

Where do lemons come from? A lemon tree, my dear Watson

Although it came somewhat later than some of the words we’ve already explored, it still didn’t take too long for Holmes’s supercilious “Elementary, my dear Watson” to catch on with the public. A notable early appearance is in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1915 novel, Psmith, Journalist. Psmith, engaging his “Sherlock Holmes system’, explains a complex point, and responds to his companion’s admiration with “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary”. The expression has only grown in popularity since then, both in adaptations of the Holmes stories and in other contexts where a note of somewhat arrogant superiority is required. So you may be surprised to know that this phrase was never actually spoken by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In the canonical stories, Holmes uses the term “elementary” to refer to his deductions, and he sometimes refers to his sidekick as “my dear Watson”, but the combination of the two is a new invention, perhaps of one of the early dramatists or screenwriters who gave Holmes a life outside the pages of the periodicals where Conan Doyle’s stories were first published.

It has generally been claimed that the Wodehouse example is the first appearance in print of “Elementary, my dear Watson”. This may be the case: the novel was first published in serial form in 1909-1910, and we are currently investigating whether the quotation occurs in the serialized version. However, in the course of researching this article I came upon some other early examples: in 1910, the Galveston Daily News said of Holmes that “his most famous deductions were characterized by himself as ‘elementary, my dear Watson; elementary’.” This is, of course, not the same kind of usage as Wodehouse’s, since it is referring directly to the Holmes stories and not using the phrase independently as an interjection, but it nonetheless suggests that this was already considered to be a genuine Holmesian utterance, rather than an invention of some other writer, at the time that Wodehouse was writing Psmith. A few years later, in 1913, the Proceedings of the First National Newspaper Conference at the University of Wisconsin also features the phrase used much as Psmith uses it, as an interjection outside any direct Holmesian context: “‘Marvellous’, you exclaim. Not at all. Simply elementary, my dear Watson.” This early evidence strongly suggests that the phrase was already well known by 1910, making it somewhat unlikely that it was a Wodehouse coinage, as some have claimed. Psmith also used the more general “Elementary, my dear fellow” in the novel Psmith and the City (1910): while Wodehouse may not have coined the phrase, he was certainly an early adopter of elementary as a quintessential Holmesian word.

When is a game not a game? When it’s a foot

The other big Holmesian catchphrase, “the game is afoot!”, is (you’ll be pleased to know) actually uttered by Conan Doyle’s Holmes. Waking the long-suffering Watson from his slumbers in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (1904), Holmes exclaims “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

Conan Doyle was obviously somewhat fond of the phrase, as it occurs elsewhere in his non-Holmes fiction, in the historical novels The White Company (1891) and Sir Nigel (1906). King Edward III in the latter novel clearly shares Holmes’s enthusiasm for sudden action (as well as friends who lie about in a state of undress) when he cries: “The game is afoot, my friends!… Dress, John! Dress, Walter! Quick all of you!” Perhaps the writing of these medievalist novels inspired some of the turns of phrase that Conan Doyle chose for Holmes, though this particular phrase is something of an anachronism in the mouth of a fourteenth-century king. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first record of its use comes from 1598, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, where Northumberland admonishes Hotspur, “Before the game is afoote, thou still letst slip.”

It’s not really a transparent phrase for a speaker of modern English. But when we realise that the game referred to here is the animal sort, a wild creature hunted for sport, and that afoot is simply a reduced form of “on foot”, it all becomes much clearer. When the game is afoot, it means that the animals to be hunted are on their feet and ready to run. To let slip is to allow the hunting hounds off their leashes. Hotspur, in other words, is releasing the dogs before the quarry is anywhere to be seen. In contrast, Holmes’s excitement is caused by knowing that his quarry is on the run and ready to be hunted down. While nineteenth-century authors, such as Conan Doyle, were probably quoting Shakespeare when they had their characters halloo that “the game’s afoot”, more modern uses of the phrases are just as likely, if not more so, to be indebted to Conan Doyle as they are to the Bard of Avon.

A Case of Identity

Like Holmes himself, the most famous allusions to him are something of a hall of mirrors. We try to quote Sherlock Holmes, but we end up quoting Shakespeare, or P. G. Wodehouse, or an anonymous Texan journalist. Is nothing sacred? Perhaps not, but for Holmes fans everywhere the news is more good than bad. The confusion over sources of some of our favourite Holmesian utterances just goes to prove that this is a complex character, with more depth (dare I say?) than so many of the literary detectives who have followed in his shadow. When we talk about Holmes, we no longer mean simply the character from the pages of Conan Doyle’s novels, but rather a cultural icon, someone who has been so embraced and so elaborated that no one author, or dramatist, or screenwriter, can claim to have exclusive rights to him. Perhaps, in fifty years’ time, some of the lines spoken by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes will have become part of the canonical Sherlockian wordhoard, their precise origins lost in the London fog. The writer Vincent Starrett described Holmes and Watson, in his poem 221B, as “two men of note / Who never lived and so can never die”. That is, perhaps, the key to our love of them. Conan Doyle wrote characters who inspired our admiration and fascination, whom age and changing times can never make old and tired. To quote Starrett again:

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.