Stan Carey investigates the popular catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which, as every schoolboy knows, does not occur in the Conan Doyle canon). It seems to have been created and spread by P.G. Wodehouse in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist. As Stan says, “if you quote Sherlock Holmes as saying ‘Exactly, my dear Watson’ – which he really does say in Conan Doyle’s stories – there’s a good chance your listener will ‘correct’ you, so entrenched is the elementary version.”

Also (speaking of canons), I realize the intensely allusive, forbiddingly learned style of criticism epitomized by Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (see this LH post) is caviare to the general, but if anyone is interested, Tom of Wuthering Expectations is doing a reading of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (not to be confused with the Julian Barnes novel that borrowed its name), a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and am finally, with the spur of Tom’s example, plunging into; his first post is here. (He just posted on Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, for those who might be interested in that.)


  1. John Cleese as Holmes’s grandson had some fun with the Elementary trope in a 1977 TV comedy called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It, in which all the answers to a newspaper’s crossword questions (such as “1 Across. A simple source of citrus fruit, 1, 5, 4; and 2 Down. Southern California style. 1, 2, 8”) were variations on the theme: A yellow manta ray, my dear Watson; Alimentary, my dear Watson &c.

    To avoid spoilers, those answers clearly do not relate to those questions. That whole short script section is reproduced in the link above (except the “alimentary” bit – either they left it off or I made it up). I saw the film on TV when it came out, and that’s the only segment I remember; the reviewer seems to think the rest was largely forgettable and so it has proved.

  2. Ah, thanks. So glad you are joining in. Kermode’s is a rich book, although that quotation I found placing it with Curtius and and Auerbach as the three great works of the century or whatever it is now seems preposterous.

  3. William Gillette’s 1899 play had, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.”

  4. There are quite a few of these non-quotations in circulation.

    “Play it again, Sam.” (Humphrey Bogart)
    “Judy, Judy, Judy.” (Cary Grant)

    plus innumerable ones attributed to Winston Churchill.

    I have a suspicion that a number of sayings from the times before sound recording may be equally dubious, but there’s no way now to tell about
    “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
    and so on.

  5. plus innumerable ones attributed to Winston Churchill.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Churchill, Einstein, Stalin, Twain, Lincoln and Jefferson never said one word in their entire lives that wasn’t apocryphal.

  6. Hat mentioned Quote Investigator in 2011, doing for apocryphal quotations what snopes does for urban myths.

    I think misquotations are no longer gaining sufficient traction to become canonical. Quoting a film is much easier when it’s on Youtube than it was when you saw it once in the cinema before it was gone for ever; it’s easier to look up books on Google than slog to the local library. And if you don’t fact-check yourself beforehand, tweeting pedants will do it for you afterwards.

  7. Kermode’s is a rich book, although that quotation I found placing it with Curtius and Auerbach as the three great works of the century or whatever it is now seems preposterous.

    I wonder if it’s because he never wrote a magnum opus of the Mimesis type, so people who love his criticism and think he’s up there with Curtius and Auerbach are forced to use this little set of lectures as a placeholder, so to speak?

  8. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    that quotation I found placing it with Curtius and and Auerbach as the three great works of the century or whatever it is now seems preposterous.

    An alternative to Hat’s generous theory is that this is a case of Apocryphalist Whispers playing out in real time; Wikipedia has:

    Colin Burrow wrote in 2013 that he regarded it as one of “the three most inspiring works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century” together with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.

    I don’t know what “inspiring” meant or means to Burrow, but he probably could have found the word “greatest” if he’d felt a need for it. Newton may or may not have been inspired by an apple to the noggin, but he was never going to split the Nobel with it.

  9. I have a sound recording of Damn the Torpedoes, and not once does Tom Petty say those actual words.

  10. Yes, that’s it, “most inspiring.” I would like to know what that means.

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    It means they breathed the most air into literary criticism, in an abortive attempt at resuscitation

  12. My preferred rendering of Farragut’s line: “Fuck the torpedoes, haul ass!”

  13. John Cowan says:

    Wikipedia says the actual order (or perhaps two separate orders) was “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” But how many people who use the phrase realize that torpedo meant ‘mine’ at the time? The word originally referred to the electric ray (genus Torpedo, later to moored or drifting explosives at sea and even on land, before becoming specialized to underwater explosive devices moving either ballistically or under their own power.

    In addition, Farragut was certainly one of the first, if not the very first, Rear Admirals of the U.S. Navy, a rank that had not existed before 1861.

  14. @ohn Cowan: He was, in fact, the first real admiral, vice admiral, and admiral in the United States Navy, promoted to those ranks in 1862, 1864, and 1866, respectively.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I think misquotations are no longer gaining sufficient traction to become canonical.

    Unless they involve genuine misunderstandings: big-league > bigly.

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    A genuine misunderstanding on the part of Trump ! All is forgiven.

  17. I think it was rather a genuine misunderstanding on the part of the press and other interested parties which didn’t correctly hear or analyze what he was saying.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    No, on the part of his listeners. The trick is that Trump doesn’t release final [g].

  19. (I presume that “No” was to Stu rather than to me, since we’re saying the same thing.)

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    This case of “mishearing” could be called hypocorrection by listeners (in contrast to hypercorrection by speakers), but there are many variations.

    On ciencaes, a Spanish internet radio station for science topics that I listen to, many of the scientists speak that ass-chapping Seville Spanish in which all non-initial “s” sounds are missing, in addition to other features that I ordered. I mean “missing” in terms of what the orthography gives me to expect, and of what I get with Castilian. Suddenly the bottles that the milkman leaves on your doorstep are only half full, and Seville customer service won’t answer the phone (I wouldn’t understand them anyway).

    For a long time I consciously “corrected” what I heard by guessing at a word and pronunciation that I SHOULD HAVE BEEN HEARING, and measuring the improvement in sense. This was frustrating because while measuring I would miss the connecting train – of thought, as it continued to be elaborated.

    Now I have become accustomed to it. I just understand “meno” and all the rest of it. It seems that what I was correcting in my head was not how these guys were speaking, but my own sense-detecting facilities. In the 60s it was called widening your horizons. Before that even: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

    What was obvious over that long time is that the signal channel was very noisy. One thing most people can learn when growing up is how to “filter out the noise”.

    Back to Trump. When he speaks, I don’t experience his pronunciation as unintelligible. I have no obvious cause to filter noise from his speech channel. But pronunciation turns partisan when you’re looking for a pretext to mock his policies (if I may be forgiven the imputation of considered strategy). It’s obvious that Trump is as ignernt as they come in terms of book-larnin’, so he is expected to speak ignerntly. When people hear “bigly”, they don’t correct it unconsciously to “big-league” because “it’s just what you’d expect from him”. It’s not noise, it’s a feature.

    That’s what I meant by hypocorrection in listeners. Aka giving the man a break, however much heartburn that may induce.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    (I presume that “No” was to Stu rather than to me, since we’re saying the same thing.)

    Yes. I started writing mine, then looked for the LLog post, and in the meantime you had posted your comment; I didn’t notice even afterwards because I didn’t scroll up.

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