Fred R. Shapiro—
The New Yale Book of Quotations uses pioneering research methods to trace famous quotations to their true origins. In particular, extensive searching of online historical books and newspapers has been employed to improve upon our knowledge of quotation provenances and histories. One result of these investigations has been the shedding of light on familiar misquotations.
Despite all the hours—years?—of my life I’ve spent discovering and correcting misquotations, I actually like and admire the damn things. I believe that, if an author creates a sequence of words that comes close to perfectly quotable euphony, the popular mind can sometimes step in and take the saying the rest of the way. Even Shakespeare has been improved upon by this process. The misquote “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” flows better than the Bard’s “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.”
One famous misquote took off from Ingrid Bergman’s request to pianist Dooley Wilson in the 1942 film Casablanca: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Bogart has a similar line: “You played it for her and you can play it for me. . . . Play it!” The line was very quickly revised, as Nigel Rees notes in Cassell’s Movie Quotations. On October 17, 1943, in a radio parody of Casablanca, Jack Benny said, “Sam, Sam, play that song for me again, will you?” On January 19, 1954, Jimmy Cannon used the specific words “Play it again, Sam” in a Newsday column. Others followed suit, and Woody Allen cemented the fame of the phrase when he made it the title of a 1969 play and 1972 movie.
A second celebrated misquotation from twentieth-century popular culture is “Beam me up, Scotty.” As many Star Trek devotees have pointed out, this command was never heard in the original television series. The closest approach was Captain Kirk’s order “Beam us up, Mr. Scott,” in the 1968 episode “Gamesters of Triskelion.” “Beam us up, Scotty” was used in 1973 in “The Lorelei Signal”—an episode of the short-lived animated version of the show. But the earliest use of “Beam me up, Scotty” I’ve found was in the Aeronautical Journal, April 1975.
Both the Casablanca and Star Trek catchphrases involve brief remarks to a colleague. And both call to mind a similar renowned misquote: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” The closest Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle ever got to “Elementary, my dear Watson” was in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1893): “‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he.” Most quotation dictionaries claim that the phrase originated in the first Holmes talkie, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929). But it was used in 1909 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and also in the popular P. G. Wodehouse novel Psmith, Journalist (serialized beginning that year). Indeed, linguist Geoffrey Pullum has argued that Wodehouse was the true author of the phrase.
Actually, it’s several years older than Psmith. I found a whimsical version in a Holmes spoof called “Sherlock Holmes’s Latest!” in the Northampton (England) Mercury on November 15, 1901. The narrator is “Dr. Potson” and the hero is “Shylock Combs.” At one point, Combs declares: “Elementary, my dear Potson. . . . I observed the left-hand side of your moustache inclined about 47-5/8 degrees towards the west, and coming as I did from Butcher-street I at once deduced from which quarter the wind was blowing.” From the sound of it, “Elementary, my dear Watson” was already famous enough to be parodied.
Google Books retrieves an even earlier possible parody. In the September 22, 1893, issue of English Mechanic and World of Science, a reader’s letter said: “All this is quite elementary, my dear ‘Fellow of the Chemical Society.’” That could be a coincidence, unrelated to Sherlock Holmes. But after all, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” was first published in the Strand magazine in July 1893. My guess is that “Elementary, my dear fellow” was born shortly after, with “Elementary, my dear Watson” soon to follow.
Fred R. Shapiro is associate director for collections and access at the Yale Law Library. A well-known authority on quotations and words, he is the foremost contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.