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Elementary error, my dear Watson

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Written by Stan Carey

The word elementary has several senses, the main one being ‘relating to the most basic and important part of something’, as in ‘elementary precautions’ or ‘elementary particle’. It’s also often used in educational contexts – indeed, a primary school is called an elementary school in the US. (See the school post from our Real World English series for more on dialect differences in the world of education.)

Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.



Macmillan Dictionary, being primarily a learner’s dictionary, does not include detailed etymologies – but it does provide etymological notes in its Word of the Day blog posts and in its Word Story feature at the end of some dictionary entries. The Word Story for elementary tells us that Sherlock Holmes never says ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ in any of the original works. In Conan Doyle’s 60 stories starring Holmes – 56 short stories and four novels – the detective uses the word ‘elementary’ a few times and the phrase ‘my dear Watson’ quite often, but never the two in the combination that is popularly voiced.

P.G. Wodehouse included the line ‘Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary’ in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist, which probably helped spread the catchphrase. ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ also appears in theatrical and film adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories; it even forms the title of a recent documentary on the author. But 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.

This is, in a way, a pleasing piece of apocrypha. It shows how the truth is not always obvious, being slippery, like language itself, and can require some detective work to be uncovered. Like other famous catchphrases that didn’t exist in the original work – like ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca (see my post on film catchphrases) – it proves the power of collective belief. Even when that belief is slightly off beam.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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