"Elementary, my dear professor! Ele . . . mentary! El . . . eh . . . men . . . tah . . . ree . . . ."
No, that's not a line from the worst adaptation of "The Final Problem" ever. What it is is part of a bit of a detective-ish ramble from a little theatrical production I was involved in back in February, where one of the actors was fishing a bit for a line and used the single word to buy time. The scene came back to me tonight, while watching the video at a belated cast party, and gave me new reason to consider that word of questionable repute.
We all know the bit of trivia that Sherlock Holmes never actually said, "Elementary, my dear Watson." He calls things "elementary" a few times, and in "The Adventure of the Crooked Man," we find:
"Elementary," said he.
But "my dear Watson," which can be found elsewhere in the original stores, is never attached. There's even a Snopes article on the myth of "Elementary, my dear Watson," which like "Beam me up, Scotty!" from a certain other fandom, entered the popular culture without a direct usage in the Canon it celebrates.
"Elementary" is just one of those words that's perfect for a man like Sherlock Holmes. It's got five syllables of big-word clout, but practically everyone knows what it means. It's used for conveying the simplicity of a seemingly complex problem, and just saying it slowly sounds like you're pondering something.
Adding "my dear Watson" to it adds a certain patronizing tone, which makes it all the more interesting that Sherlock Holmes never really used it that way in the original text. Sure, movies like to use it quite a bit, but movies gave us Boobus Britannicus, as Nigel Bruce's Watson has been called, and I'd wager that any time you hear someone talking about how mean Sherlock Holmes is to Dr. Watson, they're almost always speaking of some screen interpretation. So does our culture take for granted that Sherlock Holmes is a little bit patronizing, a little bit mean?
Well, our culture isn't decided by the Sherlock Holmeses of the world, I'm sad to say.
The Merriam-Webster definition of elementary is "of, relating to, or dealing with the simplest elements or principles of something." Which means, if you call something "elementary," you find it pretty simple, which is why Sherlock Holmes used it. If you looked over a problem and just went, "Pretty simple!" it would serve the same purpose, and "pretty simple" means no big deal . . . unless of course that thing isn't simple to you at all.
"Elementary," and one's view of it, may always be a kind of line of demarcation between the haves and the have-nots of mental prowess. Or I might just be using it like that actor I mentioned earlier, to stretch out some time when I'm trying to think of something to say . . . .
(Trivia for the day, who said "My dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes"? Hint: There were three of them, one rather cute.)