Daily catch-up: 'Elementary, my dear Watson', and other things they never said

On the Origin of Phrases, and another genuine shop name for the collection

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Tuesday 08 March 2016 09:29
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Yet another addition to my collection of Genuine Shop Names, from Manchester. Thanks to Louise Brealey via Rich Bury.

µ By coincidence, we were discussing misquotations yesterday, the subject of another of my Top 10s. Oliver Kamm is to be congratulated on running down the source of No 4 in my list, "Elementary, my dear Watson." Holmes never says it in Conan Doyle's books, although he does in some of the films. The phrase was first used by PG Wodehouse in Psmith, Journalist:

“I fancy,” said Psmith, “that this is one of those moments when it is necessary for me to unlimber my Sherlock Holmes system. As thus. If the rent collector had been here, it is certain, I think, that Comrade Spaghetti, or whatever you said his name was, wouldn’t have been. That is to say, if the rent collector had called and found no money waiting for him, surely Comrade Spaghetti would have been out in the cold night instead of under his own roof-tree. Do you follow me, Comrade Maloney?”

“That’s right,” said Billy Windsor. “Of course.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” murmured Psmith.

Wodehouse's novel was serialised in 1909-10, and so this predates another use of the phrase in The New York Times in 1911.

µ Further detective work on the origin of phrases was prompted by last night's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Colleagues in the journalism trade were told by a spokesperson for the Labour leader that there had been a sea change in the attitudes of Labour MPs, and that a line had been drawn in the sand.

The sea change was James Callaghan's excuse for losing the 1979 election:

There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.

It was rubbish. If he had called an election in the autumn of 1978 the result might have been very different. But presumably it made him feel better about his mistake.

As for the line in the sand, this began as a "line in the dirt" at the siege of the Alamo in 1836 (thanks to James Mates for that one), but the sand version became popular around the time of the 1990 Gulf war, when the phrase was used by President George HW Bush.

What is unusual is that there should be a permanent change in the sea-level, exposing a stretch of sand, in which Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn's director of communications, has drawn a line.

µ Janan Ganesh comments on the unpreparedness of those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU: "The 41 years since Britain’s last referendum on Europe was not enough time to prepare for this one." The problem is that the antis have been talking to each other for so long: "The backslapping company of fervently like-minded people is a poor environment in which to learn the science of persuasion."

Ganesh joins the ranks of pro-EU commentators who thought Boris Johnson made an awful hash of his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. I disagree.

µ And finally, thanks to Galactic Keegan for this:

"I was saddened when Maria Sharapova failed a drugs test. She probably didn't revise enough."

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