ISSN 1323-4633
Volume 3 – Number 1 – 1997


Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, creatures of Arthur Conan (1859-1930), have become twentieth-century folk heroes. The very name of Sherlock Holmes is eponymous, as the The New Shorter Orford English Dictionary defines it: “An investigator of mysteries, esp. a remarkably astute one; a private detective; a very perceptive person.”[1] Thus the character of Sherlock Holmes has become proverbial,[2] but was that feat accomplished through the use of proverbs as a stylistic device?

Novels and stories of crime and detection have been notable vehicles for the perpetuation and dissemination of proverbial language. That much was clear to no less a paremiographer than Bartlett Jere Whiting (1904-1995), an inveterate reader of detective fiction, whose Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings[3] cites thousands of proverbial texts culled from mysteries. Such reading habits would be considered

. . . shocking to some who might expect a Harvard Professor of English to spend his evenings with more uplifting forms of modern literature. In this Mr. Whiting had the precedent of his seniors of the Harvard faculty, such as the famous Egyptologist who left the Widener Library his collection of over 1900 mystery novels–each graded from A to D–and, most notably, his teacher George Lyman Kittredge, who gave the Widener Library his own extensive collection of murder mysteries, including one volume. . . on the last page of which Mr. Kittredge jotted down the proverbs he had encountered in that book.[4]

It comes as a surprise to note that Whiting does not refer to Doyle’s works, an oversight remedied by this study. Among the writers whose names march across Whiting’s pages are Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961), Freeman W. Crofts (1879-1957), Rex Stout (1886-1975), Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1978), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), Georges Simenon (1903-89), Margery Allingham (1904-66), Michael Innes (1906–). John Creasy (1908-73), Catherine Aird (1930–), and, of course, Agatha Christie (1890–1976).

With sales of her books exceeding one billion, Christie placed 3,290 proverbs, proverbial sayings, and proverbial comparisons in the mouths of 785 characters in sixty-six novels, 142 short stories, seventeen dramas, and six romances. Her perennial detective, Hercule Poirot, utters 353 proverbs, which makes his speech more proverbial than even the omniscient narrator.[5] There is, then, ample precedent for considering the proverbiality of the world’s first consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

A number of Holmesian expressions, though not actual proverbs, have become proverbial through endless repetition:

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night- time.” / “The dog did nothing in the night- time.” / “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. (015, p. 534, 1892)[6]

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson.” (026, p. 749, 1893)[7]

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (013, p. 487, 1892)

Those who fondly recall the cinematic interpretation of Holmes and Watson by Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) and Nigel Bruce (1895-1953) may be astonished to learn that Doyle’s Holmes never uttered the statement most associated with him in the popular mind: “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.[8] As early as 1953, just eight years after the last of Holmes’ adventures in Hollywood, people began to notice that the beloved line did not appear in the Holmesian canon.[9] The closest that Doyle came to this saying occurs in “The Crooked Man” (1893):

“Excellent!” I cried. “Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbor, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.'[10]

The first speaker is Watson, and the second is Holmes. Some authorities atribute the better-known version to dramatic adaptation made in 1899 by William H. Gillette (1853-1937) with Doyle’s collaboration, but the dramatic interchange is merely abbreviated Doyle:

WATSON: Marvelous!
HOLMES: Elementary! The child’s play of deduction![11]

The earliest appearance of “Elementary, my dear Watson” is Basil Dean (1888- 1978) and Garrett Forts screenplay of The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929):

In the final scene Dr. Watson is there with his “Amazing, Holmes,” and Holmes comes forth with his “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”[12]

Watson was played by H. Reeves-Smith (1862-1938) and Holmes by Clive Brook (1887-1974).

Holmes as writen by Doyle employs rather few full-blown proverbs, the principal source of which is the works of Shakespeare:

“All is well that ends well,” said Holmes. (002, p. 210, 1890) [Twelfth Night, IV, 4,35]

“Ah, Colonel,” said Holmes, arranging his rumpled collar, “‘joumeys end in lovers’ meetings,’ as the old play says.” (027, p. 782, 1903) [Twelfth Night, II, 3,46]

“Well, well, we shall be strong enough. ‘Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.”‘ (045, p. 1343, 1911) [King Henry VI, Pt. 2, III, 2, 232]

In addition to the foregoing, Holmes intones the following proverbs:

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (001, p. 26, 1887)

“The wages of sin, Watson, the wages of sin!” (054, p. 1668, 1925) [Romans 6:23]

“You are an early bird, Mr. Mac,” said he. “I wish you luck with your worm.” (048, p. 1392, 1914)

“. . . it is human to err, and at least no one can accuse you of being a callous criminal.” (035, p .963, 1904)

“I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” (002, p. 139, 1890)

“We must strike while the iron is hot.” (016, p. 550, 1893)

Among the actual proverbs uttered by Holmes is the strange case of the Persian saying. In “A Case of Identity” (1891), Holmes admonishes Watson:

“You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.”[13]

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

052 “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924)

053 “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” (1924)

054 “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” (1925)

055 “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926)

056 “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” (1926)

057 “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (1926)

058 “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” (1926)

059 “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” (1927)

060 “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” (1927)

Key-word Index

To be above- board

“It is all fair and above-board. ” (002, p. 217, 1890)
“You see, Watson, no mystery; everything above-board!” (045, p. 1343, 1911)

All’s well that ends well.

“All is well that ends well,” said Holmes. (002, p. 210, 1890)

To be the apple of someone ‘s eye

“My dear fellow, he will guard it as the apple of his eye.” (015, p. 532, 1892)

Art for Art’s sake

“It is Art for Art’s sake, Watson.” (044, p. 1319, 1911)

To bring home the bacon

“I’m bringing home the bacon at last.” (047. p. 1372, 1917)

To go from bad to worse

‘Well, matters went from bad to worse with us…” (019, p. 606, 1893)

To hang in the balance

I have no doubt that there were times when my life hung in the balance.” (041, p. 1252, 1908)

To have a bee in one’s bonnet

“…you have a wee bit of a bee in your bonnet over this professor.” (048, p. 1395, 1914)

The bird has flown.

“Our birds have flown and the nest empty.” (024, p. 707, 1893)
“He will find that his birds have flown.” (045, p. 1348, 1911)

The early bird catches the worm.

“You are an early bird, Mr. Mac,” said he. “I wish you luck with your worm.” (048, p. 1392, 1914)

To the bitter end

“Let us follow it out to the bitter end.” (009, p. 386, 1892)

As black as a tinker’s face

“. . . his face is as black as a tinker’s.” (008, p. 369, 1891)

As black as coal; coal-black

“… there was a little coal-black negress with all her white teeth flashing in amusement….” (017, p. 578, 1893)

As black as thunder

“All day he would wander about as black as thunder . . .” (002, p. 230, 1890)

To be a black sheep

“The third, Rodger, was the black sheep of the family.” (040, p. 1083, 1902)

As blind as a mole

“I confess tha I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late, than never to learn it at all.” (008, p. 368, 1891)

To make one’s blood boil

“. . . said my father, with a tameness which made my blood boil.” (019, p. 606, 1893)
“Again I heard trom her own lips things that made my blood boil….” (038, p. 1032, 1904)

Blood money

“. . . I grudge them their blood-money.” (047, p. 1370, 1917)

As blue as steel; steel-blue

There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven…. (001, p. 67, 1887)

Body and soul

“. . . I thought more of my wife’s foot-mark in the mud then [sic] I did of her whole body and soul.” (016, p. 556, 1893)
“For five days this cruel imprisonment continued, with hardly enough food to hold body and soul together.” (041, p. 1252, 1908)

As bold as brass

“… he answered us as bold as brass….” (001, p. 53, 1887)

To shoot one’s bolt

“… Desborough’s bolt was shot….” (015. p. 535, 1892)

To feel in one’s bones

“I feel it in my bones.” (028, p. 801, 1903)

To make no bones about something

The stranger made no bones about terms…. (048, p. 1471, 1914)

As brave as a bulldog

“He is as brave as a bulldog, and as tenacious as a lobster if he gets his claws upon anyone. ” (004, p. 282, 1891)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

Rome was not built in a day.

“Don’t be disheartened, Mr. Pyecroft…. Rome was not built in a day.” (018, p. 589, 1893)

To have a roof over one’s head

“… we keep a roof over our heads….” (004, p. 269, 1891)

Rough and tumble

“The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan… has made me rather more lax….” (020, p. 619, 1893)

Safe and sound

“. . . I shall be very glad to have you back safe and sound in Baker Street once more.” (040, p. 1110, 1902)

When all is said and done

“. . . the old hound is best, when all is said and done.” (001, p. 29, 1887)

To be an open secret

“It is an open secret. . . ” (001, p. 122, 1887)

A shadow of a doubt

“I take it, Watson, that you have no longer a shadow of a doubt as to how these tragedies were produced?” (043, pp. 1302-1303, 1910)

As sharp as a needle

“They are as sharp as needles, too….” (001 , p. 48, 1887)

To have a close shave

“I think that we have had a close shave ourselves of being arrested for the crime.” (002, p. 156, 1890)

To be slip-shod

The same afternoon brought a grey-headed, seedy visitor. . . who was closely followed by a slip-shod elderly woman. (001, p. 15, 1887)

As solid as a rock

“Ten years with Sir Charles Chandos–as solid as a rock.” (048, p. 1413, 1914)

Sooner or later

“. . . he would claim his pledge sooner or later.” (005, p. 296, 1891)
“. . . they would lay themselves open, and sooner or later I could destroy them.” (027, p. 773, 1903)
“. . . sooner or later his chance must have come.” (027, p. 787, 1903)
“If you prefer a public explanation it must come sooner or later ” (037, p. 1002, 1904)
“. . . I knew the dog would get him sooner or later.” (051, p. 1608, 1923)
“Sooner or later it will always come.” (054, p. 1668, 1925)
“Such hounds have a way sooner or later of biting the hand that feeds them .” (055, p. 1685, 1926)

The sooner the better

“The sooner the better, for we do not know what their next move may be.” (001, p. 91, 1887)
“. . . the sooner we get a statement the better.” (041, p. 1249, 1908)
“. . . I think that the sooner we can move the Lady Frances the better.” (045, p. 1348, 1911)
“Aye, the sooner the better.” (048, p. 1533, 1914)
“It’s me for little Holland, and the sooner the better.” (047, p. 1375, 1917)

Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot etc.

Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire. (001, p. 47, 1887)

To be the soul of discretion

“Dr. Watson is the very soul of discretion….” (051, p. 1593, 1923)

To sell one’s soul to the devil

“‘Sold his soul to the devil in exchange for money,’ says Warner . . .” (041, p. 1246, 1908)

As sound as a bell

“. . . I suppose your friend was a healthy young fellow–nothing amiss with him?”
“Sound as a bell.” (037, p. 997, 1904)

To be the spit and image of someone

“It’s the living spit of him, gown and all.” (049, p. 1560, 1921)

To leave no stone unturned

“I beg you to leave no stone unturned to bring him safely back.” (037, p. 998, 1904)
“Leave no stone unturned! ” (042, p. 1264, 1908)

To be a stool pigeon

“… there’s a stool pigeon or a cross somewhere….” (047, p. 1375, 1917)

To make a long story short

“To make a long story short, the colonel recommended me….” (002, pp. 217-218, 1890)
“Well, to make a long story short, I loved her and I married her.” (050, p. 1575, 1922)

To grasp at straws

“Ah, poor old chap, he clings to any straw.” (025, p. 715, 1893)

As strong as a horse

‘This fellow is a perfect savage, as strong as a cart-horse and as fierce as the devil.” (041, p. 1243, 1908)

The proper study of mankind is man.

“‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” (001, p. 10, 1887)

To play someone for a sucker

“Saw through my game, I suppose, and played me for a sucker from the first.” (053, p. 1642, 1924)

As sure as a cock; cocksure

“Yes, some of us are a little too much inclined to be cocksure, Mr. Holmes.” (028, p. 805, 1903)

The survival of the fittest

“It would be the survival of the least fit.” (051, p. 1610, 1923)

As tenacious as a lobster

“He is as brave as a bulldog, and as tenacious as a lobster if he gets his claws upon anyone.” (004, p. 282, 1891)

As thin as a lath

“You are as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut.” (001, p. 4, 1887)

Thrice is he armed etc.

“Well, well, we shall be strong enough. ‘Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.'” (045, p. 1343, 1911)

Not to care a tinker’s curse

“I don’t care a tinker’s curse whether you live or die.” (054, p. 1658, 1925)

To hold one’s tongue

“However, I threw all my fears to the winds. . . having obeyed to the letter the injunction as to holding my tongue.” (011, p. 430, 1892)
. . . the decent citizen was terrorized into paying public blackmail, and holding his tongue lest some worse thing befall him. (048, p. 1480, 1914)

To be armed to the teeth

“I assure you that I am armed to the teeth….” (033, p. 916, 1904)

Touch and go

“It has been touch and go with him….” (018, p. 594, 1893)

As tough as whipcord

“. . . he is yellow and sapless, but tough as whipcord.” (041, p. 1245, 1908)

To be off the beaten track

“It is a little off the beaten track, isn’t it?” (004, p. 268, 1891)

To be up to one’s old tricks

“At your old tricks again,” he laughed. (057, p. 1709, 1926)

As true as a stock

“I’d a partner . . . a rare good man, as true as a stock to a barrel.” (019, p. 612, 1893)

As true as gospel

“It’s as true as gospel.” (004, p. 267, 1891)

As true as steel

“She’s as true as steel and as deaf as a post.” (048, p. 1533, 1914)
“True as steel, every man of them.” (048, p. 1535, 1914)

. . . what remains is the truth.

“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” (002, p. 131, 1890)
“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (013, p. 487, 1892)
“We must fall back on the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth .” (042, p. 1275, 1908)

Two can play the game.

“Two can play at that game, Holmes.” (049, p. 1555, 1921)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

To be at one’s wits’ end

“I was at my wits’ end where to get the money….” (008, p. 372, 1891)
“My guide stopped, and looked about her like one who is at her wits’ end.” (011, p. 437, 1892)
“. . . I was at my wits’ end as to what I should do.” (014, p. 492, 1892)
“I am a my wits’ end.” (014, p. 497, 1892)
“The county police are at their wits’ end….” (020, p. 628, 1893)
. . . his brows were wrinkled, like one who is at his wits’ end what to do. (040, p. 1144, 1902)
“I am at my wits’ end.” (031, p. 875, 1904)
“It’s my first big chance, and I am at my wits’ end.” (032, p. 892, 1904)
“I was at my wits’ end….” (035, p. 952, 1904)
“. . . I am near out of my wits over it! ” (048, p. 1525, 1914)
“. . . we are utterly at our wits’ end as to what to do….” (051, p. 1597, 1923)
“. . . I am at my wits’ end.” (052, p. 1617, 1924)
“. . . I am very far from being at my wits’ end….” (052, p. 1617, 1924)

Hard words break no bones.

“Sure, hard words break no bones.” (048, p. 1515, 1914)


*Previously published in Proverbium, 13 (1996), pp. 47-68

  1. (Oxtord: Clarendon Press,1993): II, 2823.
  2. The breadth and depth of Holmesian scholarship is aptly reflected in the 526 pages of Ronald B. De Waal, The World Bibliography of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: A Classified and Annotated List of Materials Relating to Their Lives and Adventures (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1974).
  3. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  4. Larry D. Benson, “Foreword” to Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings ix.
  5. George B. Bryan, Black Sheep, Red Herrings, and Blue Murder: The Proverbial Agatha Christie.Sprichwörterforschung Bd. 16 (Bern: Peter Lang, 1993).
  6. The material enclosed by parentheses includes a three-digit number that refers to items in The Holmesian Canon, a page number, and the date of publication.
  7. In speaking of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, Bernard Shaw twice calls that character a Napoleon of finance. Cf: George B. Bryan and Wolfgang Mieder, The Proverbial Bernard Shaw: An Index to Proverbs in the Works of George Bernard Shaw (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994) 183. Winston S. Churchill writes of a Napoleon of commerce. Cf: Wolfgang Mieder and George B. Bryan, The Proverbial Winston S. Churchill: An Index to Proverbs in the Works of Sir Winston S. Churchill (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995) 310. Eugene O’Neill writes twice of a Napoleon of finance and a Napoleon of trade and mentions a Napoleon of affairs, of business, and of facts. George B. Bryan and Wolfgang Mieder. The Proverbial Eugene O’Neill: An Index to Proverbs in the Works of Eugene Gladstone O’Neill (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. forthcoming) 249-250.
  8. Typical of the numerous reference works that point out this fact are Tom Burnam, The Dictionary of Misinformation (New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1975) and Paul F. Boller, Jr., and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 47.
  9. “An Elementary Attribution,” The Times 12 May 1953: A7.
  10. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Heritage Press, 1950) 659.
  11. Wllliam H. Gillette, Sherlock Holmes in Plays by William Hooker Gillette, ed. Rosemary Cullen and Don B. Wilmeth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 226. In 1905 Gillette wrote and presented another Holmes play: The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes: A Fantasy in One Act (Chicago: B. Abramson, 1955). There is no question of Holmes’ saying “Elementary, my dear Watson” in that piece, since his painful predicament is being rendered speechless by a talkative client.
  12. Mordaunt Hall, rev. of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, in New York Times 19 Oct. 1929: A22. This citation is alluded to in Angela Partington, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  13. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 306.
  14. “The Case of the Persian Proverb,” The Baker Street Journal XL, 3 (1990): 135-136.

George B. Bryan
Department of Theatre
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405 USA