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Did Sherlock Holmes Give us the Cliche ‘the Smoking Gun’?

Arthur Conan Doyle is credited by many for sparking the invention of forensic science through his character, Sherlock Holmes.

Now the famed author has been falsely credited with giving us the phrase, "the smoking gun".

The Smithsonian Magazine is now claiming that Conan Doyle invented the phrase (hat tip to the Passive Voice blog):

The evidence is irrefutable. The headlines declare a "smoking gun" has been found. But how did this dramatic image of a phrase become synonymous in everyday speech with conclusive proof? Fittingly, the origins lie with one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, and of course, a recently fired pistol.

The 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle short story "The Adventure of the 'Gloria Scott'" depicts a young Sherlock Holmes solving his first professional case. … After shooting several guards, they moved to seize control of the ship:

 "[W]e rushed on into the captain’s cabin, but as we pushed open the door there was an explosion from within, and there he lay wit' his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow."

"A good copy editor would have fixed Doyle’s awkward 'in his hand at his elbow,' and Sir Arthur chose pistol rather than gun," wrote the late William Safire in his  "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Nevertheless, those quibbles aside, he identifies Doyle’s use of the phrase as "the start of the cliché that grips us today."

Leaving aside the fact that today’s figurative meaning differs from Conan Doyle’s use, there are still two huge problems with this.

The first problem is that Safire is widely regarded by linguists as the Daily Mail of etymology. He is not considered a credible source because, as I am bout to show you, even the most cursory fact check tends to debunk his claims.

A quick check of Google Books shows that the phrase "smoking pistol" was used in a number of works in the 1880s, including in a record of criminal proceedings from Texas.

That proceedings could have been where Conan Doyle found the term, but a discussion on Stack Exchange uncovered a more likely possibility.

There is a reference to a "smoking gun" published in a literary journal in Conan Doyle’s native Edinburgh in 1843. While it isn’t quite the same usage as Conan Doyle’s story, the similarity suggests that the author may have reused the phrase after reading it in his youth.

At the very least, it casts doubt on the myth that Conan Doyle was the original source, as Safire and the Smithsonian Magazine claimed.

On the other hand, do you think he deserves credit for popularizing the phrase so that it was still in use, and could be adapted to mean "irrifutable evidence"?

image by cgalvin233

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tired July 16, 2017 um 8:41 am

You misinterpreted what you read. It’s not the use of the phrase "smoking gun" which would be common enough since many guns would be literally smoking after having been discharged. It’s taking the fact that the gun is smoking as evidence that it had been recently fired. That means that the reader must not observe the discharging of the firearm, only the evidence that it had been discharged for it to be the "smoking gun" as the Smithsonian article discusses.

Your article quote does not convey the same meaning because the reader was along for the trigger being pulled (see the beginning of the paragraph). That is not using it the way that the Sherlock Holmes story used it.

The point is not that the phrase "smoking gun" wasn’t used previously, it was that it wasn’t used to be synonymous with conclusive proof prior to the publication of that Sherlock Holmes story.

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