Key words you need to know to understand Sherlock Holmes

Take our quick-fire guide to the famous detective’s vocabulary and from here on out it will be elementary, my dear Watsons!

Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and first shared him with the world in 1887. Holmes as a character has appeared in four novels and 56 short stories – and now, innumerable film and TV adaptations.

Nearly every Sherlock Holmes story is narrated by Dr John H. Watson, a friend and biographer of Holmes who is often instrumental in helping solve the crimes.

Now, being a hyper-intuitive and extremely scientific, intelligent detective, Holmes is often accused of being a little inaccessible to his fellow humans; and indeed, for anyone learning the English language, there are a few words which he (and other famous detectives) use that are tricky to understand.

Today, we guide you through some Sherlock speak, and some general sleuth speak, to help you solve the riddle of detective story language!

A sleuth is someone who solves crimes; it is a synonym, usually used outside of professional parlance, to describe an investigator/detective/criminal investigator. You might also here the term ‘sleuthing’ – the action of solving crimes.

The probably-Oxford or Cambridge- educated Holmes is a man of high intellectual repute, and a man who often uses science to help solve his crimes. ‘Forensic’ is the term used to refer to anything which applies scientific or technological methods to solving a crime. You’ll also hear this on CSI and other shows – ‘the forensics team’ turn up, usually all in white overalls and masks, wearing gloves, to dust for prints and pick up any chemical traces for analysis ‘back at the lab’. Holmes seems to do all this stuff himself, being the experimental, detective, not so keen on sharing.

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You’ll hear this word, or a derivative, often in relation to Holmes and his activities: to deduce, I deduced, simple deduction. In mathematics or finance speak, deduction means ‘taking away’ (a bit like subtraction; tax deductions for instance). However, in detective speak, deduction is a manner of inferring, from a set of principles or a series of evidence, a general rule or truth. The detective uses evidence and facts available to ‘deduce’ the murderer’s identity: he couples his suspicion, or intuition, with a logical piecing together of the events at hand.

Classic Holmes-speak. Whilst the famous catchphrase ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’ is never actually uttered by Holmes in the books, its two components are often said separately. Elementary means easy, essential: something elemental or elementary is basic, easily broken down (or easily deduced!). In modern terms it has the overtones of ‘obviously!’/ ‘it’s obvious’. When Holmes says it, it reveals the extent of his character’s supreme intelligence – and gives us a sense of his superiority complex towards other “stupids” (people).

To number, count or put together. Again this is quite an elaborate, scientific word for an activity which we might describe more simply. To enumerate means to add up – whilst usually referring to directly countable things, it can also be used in a more abstract sense to mean evaluate, or draw conclusion.

Ear-flapped travelling cap
This one is for fans of the books: Holmes is often described as wearing an Inverness cape and an ‘ear-flapped travelling cap’: this hat might otherwise be known as a ‘deerstalker’, with two floppy, semi-circular ear flaps at each side, which can be worn down or up.

Every truly great hero has a truly worthy archenemy. For Superman it’s Lex Luther. For Holmes, it’s probably Moriarty. An arch-enemy is like your super-enemy; ‘arch’ here meaning greatest or highest. Think of how it works with things like church ranks – an archbishop is higher than a bishop. So a regular enemy, fine, they’re a bad guy – but an archenemy…that’s something to really test your mettle!

If you’re a fan of modern Holmes, and you read up a lot on the discussions around the characters and their TV-and-film adaptations, then you’ll probably have come across the word “Asperger’s”. Some analysts have started using this term to describe Holmes’ behavioral patterns in modern terms: he is hyper intelligent and extremely quick with numbers, facts and problem-solving, but shows a general disinterest in human interaction, emotion and women. Asperger’s refers to Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which is classified as a disability, and has profound effects on the way a person perceives and understands the world. Some speculate whether Holmes suffers from the condition; but this is simply opinion and perhaps a fun way of going deeper into the world of this fictional character.

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