The well-trod phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” is as closely associated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as the deerstalker cap and the calabash pipe. But if you take a closer look at the details of Doyle’s famous detective as initially written, you might find a few surprises.
The master detective and his “Boswell,” Dr. John Watson, have been a part of our cultural landscape since 1887 when Doyle published the novel A Study in Scarlet in that year’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Although it attracted little notice at the time, subsequent short stories starring Holmes and Watson published in the Strand Magazine beginning in 1891 gradually gathered steam. Now, nearly a century and a half later, Holmes has become one of the most recognizable literary characters of all time.
But many of what are now considered to be Holmes’ most distinctive details were never a part of Doyles’ stories. For example, Holmes is never actually described explicitly as wearing a deerstalker; the hat was an addition of an early illustrator of the stories. Nor were the pipes Holmes smoked calabashes; he favored clay, old briar, and long Cherrywood pipes. And as for “Elementary, my dear Watson?” You guessed it: Holmes never actually utters that complete phrase in its entirety at any point in the canon.
Most of these details became part of the mythos as Holmes spread beyond the page and onto the stage and, later, screen. But while we can point to definitive moments where the cap and pipe entered the picture, it’s harder to pin down the catchphrase. Here’s the truth about the words erroneously attributed to the detective—and why they’ve proven to be so persistent.
The Canonicity of the Matter
The official Holmes canon comprises 56 short stories and four novels. Holmes does regularly refer to Watson as “my dear Watson” within these works; the phrase appears in canon more than 80 times. The word “elementary,” however, appears significantly fewer times: It’s either spoken or, in one case, written by Holmes just seven times.
The very first occurrence of “elementary” does appear in A Study in Scarlet, although notably, it’s the one written occurrence of the word, rather than a spoken one. It pops up in a magazine article titled “The Book of Life” Watson reads one morning while waiting for breakfast to be served shortly after moving into 221B Baker Street with Holmes. In its discussion of “the Science of Deduction and Analysis,” the article notes, “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”
Watson isn’t terribly taken with the article; he refers to it as “ineffable twaddle,” stating upon finishing it, “I never read such rubbish in my life.” It turns out, though, that the author of the article is none other than Holmes himself.
Holmes uses the word “elementary” six more times in the novels and short stories—twice in The Hound of the Baskervilles and once each in “A Case of Identity,” “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.” Of all these mentions, the one that comes the closest to the form and function of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” is the one in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man.” In response to what Watson considers to be an astute deduction about his own habits made by Holmes, he exclaims, “Excellent!” Holmes, however, corrects him, noting that the deduction is not “excellent,” but rather “elementary”:
“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.”
But, despite the numerous times Holmes utters the phrase “my dear Watson,” it’s never paired with any of his rare uses of the word “elementary” —not once.
False Signature Phrase and the Mandela Effect
Catchphrases often become so linked to the groups, people, or characters to which they’re ascribed that they essentially turn into signatures of sorts—think Star Trek’s “Live long and prosper” or Steve Urkel’s “Did I do that?” from Family Matters. But sometimes, these kinds of signature phrases… aren’t accurate. You know the so-called “famous” Darth Vader line from The Empire Strikes Back, “Luke, I am your father?” That’s one of the most well-known examples of this phenomenon in action—because Vader never actually says, “Luke, I am your father.” The line is, “No. I am your father.” Just as the incorrect version of the line is a false signature phrase forever ascribed to Vader, so, too, is “Elementary, my dear Watson” a false signature phrase indelibly connected to Sherlock Holmes.
The lasting power of false signature phrases like “Luke, I am your father” and “Elementary, my dear Watson” is often chalked up to the false memory phenomenon colloquially referred to as the Mandela effect. Named for the false memory an unexpectedly wide number of people have of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s, the term “Mandela effect” describes the widescale collective misremembering of… well, just about anything. Take its namesake, for example: Although some say they remember watching Mandela’s supposed funeral live on television during the ’80s, Mandela lived until 2013. He was released from prison in 1990 and went on to serve as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
Other examples of the Mandela effect in action include the now-infamous Berenstain vs. Berenstein Bears debate, the odd persistence of false memories surrounding a non-existent movie from the 1990s titled Shazaam starring Sinbad, and—yes—the certainty many feel about false signature phrases like “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
The term “Mandela effect” isn’t generally recognized by the scientific community; its original coinage, by paranormal consultant Fiona Broome, is heavily based in pseudoscience. However, the phenomenon of false memories is widely recognized—and sometimes, even scientists will use the term “Mandela effect” to refer to this particular variety of false memory.
According to University of Texas at Austin professor of psychology Art Markman, Ph. D., three main factors tend to contribute to the sorts of memory lapses we think of as examples of the Mandela effect. “First, people are not good at remembering the exact words that are spoken to them,” Markman pointed out at UT alumni magazine Alcades in 2018—a claim firmly demonstrated by research. As Markman notes, a study published in the journal Cognitive Psychology in 1972 found that the vast majority of participants who heard the sentence “A turtle lay on a log, and a fish swam beneath them” remembered the sentence later on as, “A turtle lay on a log, and a fish swam beneath it.”
Markman also notes that much of the information we encounter regularly comes not from firsthand experience, but filtered through our social networks—which means that those networks do a lot of work when it comes to shaping our beliefs without us even realizing it. And lastly, the more people we encounter who believe something, the more likely we are to believe it ourselves—that is, there’s literally strength in numbers, even when the so-called “fact” asserted by large numbers of people is, in fact, incorrect.
So, Where Did it Come From in the First Place?
Of course, none of that explains precisely where Sherlock Holmes’ false signature phrase may have come from—and unfortunately, that’s a mystery even the great detective himself might have a hard time unraveling.
Its first appearance is sometimes credited to the 1899 play Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts, written by William Gillette and Doyle himself and originally starring Gillette as the titular detective. However, as Snopes points out, it’s unclear whether Gillette actually ever uttered the slightly longer version of the phrase— “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson” —reportedly spoken in the first production of this play; the script for Sherlock Holmes: A Drama in Four Acts was revised numerous times between 1899 and 1935, but none of the published editions include this line among Holmes’.
It’s also sometimes pointed out that although Holmes never says “Elementary, my dear Watson” in the official canon, he does say “Exactly, my dear Watson” on three occasions. The structure of the phrase is similar enough to “Elementary, my dear Watson” to suggest that they might be connected; however, the meanings of the phrases couldn’t be more different. When Holmes tells Watson that something is “elementary,” he’s saying that it’s basic or straightforward— child’s play to him, essentially. Each of the times he says, “Exactly, my dear Watson,” however—once each in The Valley of Fear, “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter,” and “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” —he uses it to affirm something Watson has just said. As such, it’s unclear how much, if at all, the instances of Holmes saying, “Exactly, my dear Watson” may have contributed to the popularity of “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
We do know that the false signature had already made its way into the cultural lexicon by the early 20th century, though. As Quote Investigator found, a parody of the Holmes stories published in The Northampton Mercury in November of 1901 featured the following passage:
He noticed my amazement and smiled that wonderful smile of his.
“Elementary, my dear Potson,” he said; “I observed the left-hand side of your moustache inclined about 47 5/8 degrees towards the west, and coming as I did from Butcher-street I at once deduced from which quarter the wind was blowing.”
Meanwhile, in August of 1909, the Times Dispatch printed an article about the possibility of being able to send signals to Mars using mirrors, again featuring the phrase:
It is such a simple little problem that any one should be able to take a pad and pencil and work it out in ten minutes. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” as Sherlock Holmes was wont to say, “Elementary.”
And by the time P.G. Wodehouse got to it in his 1915 novel Psmith, Journalist? Well, the phrase was cemented in popular culture enough for the character of Smith himself to utter the line, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”
Even if it never actually dropped from Holmes’ mouth, it’s clear that the catchphrase is here to stay; it even provided the title for one of the two modern television adaptations that aired during the 2010s. And, given the pithiness of the phrase… well, it’s just elementary, isn’t it?