linguistics and lexicography Love English

It’s amateur detection 101!

It is a well-known fact that when Dr Watson asked Sherlock Holmes how he had discovered the crucial clue which solved a crime, the great detective would answer “Elementary, my dear Watson”. (There’s even a YouTube clip to prove it.) There is just one problem. It’s easy enough to download the complete Sherlock Holmes stories and run a simple search, and what this reveals – as it says in the “Word Story” at our entry for elementary – is that Holmes never actually says this.

He regularly addresses his friend as “My dear Watson”. There are ten examples in the Hound of the Baskervilles alone, and many others scattered throughout the stories:

I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous.
I confess, my dear Watson, that that does not appeal to me as a very probable explanation

Holmes is also fond of using the word elementary, usually when referring to facts or clues which seem – to him, though not to others – blindingly obvious:

All this is amusing, though rather elementary
“Interesting, though elementary,” said he as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee.

Both expressions are used in a condescending way, as if Holmes were addressing a not very intelligent eight-year-old. They never appear together as a single phrase, but we can see both in action in this typical exchange (from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes):

“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he.  “When your round [as a doctor] is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom.  As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom”. “Excellent!” I cried.
“Elementary,” said he.

The underlying message is “this is all so self-evident that it is hardly worth talking about”. To achieve a similarly dismissive effect nowadays, speakers sometimes use an expression containing 101. In the U.S., 101 is used in the names of university courses which give a basic (or “elementary”) introduction to a subject: so there are courses such as History 101 or American Literature 101. From here, we find 101 being used in websites, books, or magazine articles providing basic instructions in any kind of skill:

Inside the first issue is the first installment of the Linux 101 column
Photography 101 Beginner Guides. Learn what the pros know when buying a camera and using basic settings!
Natural Acne Treatment 101 by Kirsten Hawkins.  Let’s face it. Nobody is really immune to having acne from time to time….

Or it may be a more ironic use, referring to imaginary college courses:

This is definitely a freshman beer … with not too much hops or bitterness or taste, i.e. good for squeaky clean freshmen in their first day of Beer101.
Gaucho, as well as Combat Rock, is in the syllabus for Disappointing Albums 101.

And finally, there’s the increasingly common use in situations that Sherlock Holmes would be familiar with – where you find yourself having to explain something which you think is obvious:

Inflation is caused by printing money, which leads to currency devaulations and which supports exports, not the other way around. This is economics 101!
When trading via a demo account most people do very well. Why? Its psychology 101: they are trading without fear.

If Holmes were living now, I expect he’d be saying “My dear Watson, it’s amateur detection 101!”

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Michael Rundell

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