The Game is Afoot

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 15 (1000×300)

Sherlock Holmes pops up across every generation of media, often multiple times. Hell, since 2010 there have been at least 4 different versions of Holmes and Watson in the pop media landscape:

and that’s not counting spin-offs like the new version being prepped for Disney for 2020. (The new version will feature Enola Holmes, the younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft. I’ll admit to being kind of curious.)

What all four current versions have in common is, of course, the source material; what makes each of them more or less interesting is how they play with that material:

  • Elementary made the decision to turn John into Joan and to set most of the series in the U.S. Interesting.

  • The comedy version that tried to turn everything into a joke? Less so.

  • The BBC adaptation that arguably kicked off the modern fascination with the detective and launched Cumberbatch and Martin's careers into the stratosphere used very inventive on-screen graphics to show Holme's thought process as well as ably and carefully updated the classic stories. Very interesting.

  • The RDJ movies that made Holmes insufferably smug? Less so.

But, however many there may be, I keep watching them. I enjoy seeing how they adapt the source material for good and bad. In particular, I listen for one line - the game's afoot. Done well, it adds depth to the characters and provides the audience with an anticipatory beat signaling the story is about to get good.

But where does it come from and what does it mean?

Putting the latter first, from Writing Explained (dot org), it means:

The literal meaning is about hunting. The game means the animal or animals that people are hunting and afoot means running or on the move.

In other words, the hunt has started and it is time to get involved. As for the first part, where does it come from, that too, is easy to answer: Shakespeare, King Henry IV.

But that’s not where I first found it.

I first read the game's afoot well before I ever read any version of Holmes, much less Henry IV. I found it in a juvenile series by Janet Asimov (with editing assistance from her husband, SF Grand Master Isaac) called Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot. (Just while writing this, I've found myself very nostalgic and wanting to re-read the series!) In it, our protagonists are scrambling to solve a mystery surrounding their recently acquired robot friend, Norby. Older brother Fargo urges younger brother Jeff to remember the motto TGAF. A few pages later, we get:

Jeff hoped nobody from Security Control would stop him, open the Shakespeare, and see Fargo’s underlining in “Henry the Fifth.” Or that, if they did, they wouldn’t understand the old language.

“The game’s afoot,” Henry had cried out, but what game was Fargo after with his TGAF? Was it Ing?

I was eight years old in 1983, when Norby was first published. Although I read all the Norby books several times, I never quite got around to looking up Henry V in my local library. In fact, I forgot all about the phrase until I started reading the Sherlock Holmes books in high school. Then, having discovered it again, I conflated the two books and assumed that Asimov had gotten it from Conan-Doyle. Which is why we should never ass-u-me.

In Asimov’s story, Jeff thinks the game is afoot comes from Henry V. It actually comes from an earlier Henry, specifically, King Henry IV Part 1 (1597):

Before the game is afoot, thou still let'st slip.

It's very possible that the phrase was in common use before then, but good ol' Will is the one that wrote it down.

Unlike so many other Shakespearean phrases, the game is afoot hasn't really entered into the modern vernacular. It’s unlikely any of us leap into a car with our friends and scream out, “The game is afoot!” Not without getting a lot of funny looks anyway.

Which brings me back to Sherlock Holmes and modern adaptations thereof. As I said earlier, some changes to the canon are better than others. One of the ones that worked well, I thought, was Sherlock’s changing of the game is afoot to the game is on. Not only does it reference the original work, it brings that original work into the present by replacing a dated metaphor (game = prey) with the defining metaphor of our time, that of game as puzzle, entertainment, and reason for being.

This duality in the word game has always been present, at least as far as the noun form goes. From Etymology Online:

game (n.)

c. 1200, from Old English gamen "joy, fun; game, amusement," common Germanic (cognates: Old Frisian game "joy, glee," Old Norse gaman "game, sport; pleasure, amusement," Old Saxon gaman, Old High German gaman "sport, merriment," Danish gamen, Swedish gamman "merriment"), said to be identical with Gothic gaman "participation, communion," from Proto-Germanic *ga- collective prefix + *mann "person," giving a sense of "people together."

Of course, neither Shakespeare nor Conan-Doyle meant an actual game was being played (nor was any being hunted) when their characters said the game was afoot. In the first case, Henry is leading his troops to battle, in the latter, Holmes is urging Watson to get ready because there is a case to solve. But again, I think that’s why changing “afoot” to “on” works so well - because the metaphor hasn’t gone anywhere. Whether hunting or playing, both metaphors reduce the situation to a contest:

(“The game” as code for the contest between politics and survival is the defining theme of shows like The Wire.)

But back to Norby. By the end of the series, the game is afoot has become a rallying cry, almost a battle-cry for the lead characters. And I think it needs to make a comeback. Next time you get together with your friends to do...anything - go to a restaurant, find a new cafe, solve a murder, whatever - try this out as a rallying cry. Let me know how it goes.

In the meantime, I think it's time for a re-read of A Study in Scarlet, The Norby Chronicles, and maybe even Henry IV. The game's afoot! (1000×100)


Henry IV, Act 1, Scene 3


    True; who bears hard

His brother’s death at Bristol, the Lord Scroop.

I speak not this in estimation,

As what I think might be, but what I know

Is ruminated, plotted, and set down,

And only stays but to behold the face

Of that occasion that shall bring it on.


I smell it. Upon my life, it will do well.


Before the game is afoot thou still let’st slip. (1000×100)

Notable Events of the Year 1597

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Photo by Kristen Kaethler on Unsplash

Rice pudding is unknown in Japan. What’s more, the second you describe it to Japanese people, they often curl their faces in unbridled horror. Which makes this pretty ironic. Said reaction is made only more ironic if you’ve ever eaten daifuku mochi or dango. (Both sweets made from pounded rice cake.) Anyway, I love rice pudding. I’ve tried a few recipes now, here are three good ones.

Elise Bauer’s Rice Pudding on Simply Recipes

Erica G.’s Creamy Rice Pudding on All Recipes

Christin Mahrlig’s Old-Fashioned Rice Pudding on Spicy Southern Kitchen

Next time: Busy bee. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.