Investigating the Language of Sherlock Holmes

October 2017 marked the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle’s first collection of stories starring the eccentric private detective who would become one of the world’s most beloved fictional characters.

We’ve often recommended these books for students on the path to learning English – while they’re certainly not for beginners, the stories are short, exciting and packed with useful vocabulary – a great place to start if you want to dip your toe in classic English literature. Today we’ll take a look at the language of Sherlock Holmes, from the words and phrases still in common use, to some of the more colorful Victorian idioms the sleuth encounters in his investigations.  


“The game is afoot!”

Holmes summons Watson to The Adventure of the Abbey Grange with this cry of enthusiasm. If you suspect the phrase might mean something similar to the modern expression “Game on!” you’d be right – both convey, roughly: “something exciting is happening and it’s time to act.” However, the two phrases have surprisingly different origins.  Holmes is actually quoting a speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!

The warrior King is urging his troops into battle, just as Holmes is urging Watson to join him on his latest case. Neither Henry nor Holmes is referring to football, however (which is probably the source of “game on”). “Game” is a general term for any animal such as deer, foxes or grouse that might be hunted, whether for food or sport. The literal meaning of the phrase is therefore “the animal we are hunting is running [afoot = moving on foot]; we mustn’t let it get away.”


Sherlock Holmes detective kit
Holmes is famous for both his catchphrases and his clever methods of solving crimes



“The fair sex …”

In The Adventure of the Second Stain, Holmes expresses his rather sexist attitude to women by combining two idioms you’ll still encounter today: “Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department.

Fair” is one of those English words with a baffling range of meanings. You can use it to call someone reasonable, comment on their light-colored skin or hair, or express that it isn’t raining.  An older meaning, “beautiful” is the relevant one here, and though using the phrase “the fair sex” to refer to women in general is now rather dated (and mildly offensive), you’ll still encounter it quite regularly.


“…is your department.”

The second idiom – “my/your department” remains very common. A department is a section of a large organization such as a business or a government. If you refer to something as “not my department,” you’re admitting you don’t know much about it and can’t take responsibility for it. Unlike the similar phrase “not my business,” you’re emphasizing a lack of expertise rather than a lack of interest.


“A pretty hash you’ve made of it.”

Poor Watson – Holmes can be rather hard on him sometimes! Here, he’s accusing his loyal friend of messing up an investigation in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.  A criminal has seemingly escaped after nearly strangling Watson – who had failed to follow the detective’s instructions. A “hash” is a dish of diced ingredients, often leftovers such as meat, onion and potatoes, which are fried together. The idea of many small things mixed together makes a hash a common metaphor for a mess or a jumble. Holmes’ description of the muddle as “pretty” is bitingly sarcastic – especially as a good hash is tasty but not particularly nice to look at.  


sherlock holmes book
How many of the Sherlock Holmes stories are you familiar with?



Holmes likes to reveal his solutions in his own time and with the maximum amount of drama, and we can’t blame his long-suffering friend/rival, Inspector Lestrade, for sometimes losing patience. “If you know anything," he complains in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, when Holmes, who is hunting a murderer, has just demanded two buckets of water and a pile of straw. "You can surely say it without all this tomfoolery."

This vivid little idiom has its roots all the way back in the 14th Century. “Tom” was a common stand-in name for an ordinary person (like “Joe Bloggs” or “John Doe” today), and “Tom Fool” became a nickname for a silly or annoying person. Later Tom Fool became the name of a traditional jester character that appeared alongside Morris Dancers. By Holmes’ time, tomfoolery meant “silly behavior” or “joking around” – and it’s still in frequent use today.


Are there any other famous Sherlock Holmes phrases you want us to examine? Or maybe you know a bit of history about some of these phrases yourself? Share your thoughts and reactions with us on our Facebook channel or in the comment section below.

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