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In Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia, the americans force Sherlock to open Irene Adler's safe by threatening Holmes and Adler at gunpoint. The safe turns out to be booby trapped. But just before he opens it Sherlock mutters something to warn them.

What does Sherlock say and why does it cause Adler and Holmes to react the way they do?

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4 Answers 4

Vatican cameos!

It's pretty hard to find a definitive answer, but it looks like it is code for "Duck!".

And it's aimed only at Watson as he's the only one to react at the phrase.


Conan Doyle makes a reference about in "The Hound of the Baskervilles". (source)

I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.

But Conan Doyle never wrote a story about it.

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Well, that's what I mean by "it looks like". There's no explication given in the episode. And it isn't a reference to a previous one. So there's no definitive answer for the use of "Vatican cameos" –  Loïc Wolff Jan 22 '12 at 20:31
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For what it's worth, I've asked the writers on Twitter. We'll see if they answer. –  Loïc Wolff Jan 22 '12 at 20:36
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It's possible that the untold case of the Vatican Cameos, as referred to in The Hound of the Baskervilles, somehow involved ducking to avoid gunfire, an event that Holmes was hoping was memorable enough to illicit the response in Watson that it did. –  Brian Ortiz Jan 27 '12 at 21:47
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From what I can find, "Vatican Cameos" was a code used by the English during WWII to alert agents that the person they were dealing with was an armed enemy/double agent. This fits the situation as the safe was booby-trapped. –  phantom42 Jul 24 '12 at 14:48
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See also: bbc-sherlock.wikia.com/wiki/Vatican_Cameos –  Hugo Aug 21 '12 at 12:42

Just before he opens the safe, Sherlock looks at Irene (probably because he suspects there might be some kind of booby trap). She looks sharply down and to the right. It's obvious given what happens next that this look is code for "Duck!"

So he knows to duck, and she knows to duck, but someone has to warn John somehow. You can see from John's reaction and expression immediately after Sherlock yells, "Vatican cameos!" that he's reacting specifically to that phrase, not because he had any previous intent to duck.

Googling reveals that there seems to be some sort of myth going round that this is a phrase used by military personnel to indicate that there was an armed (non-military) person who had entered the base. I say myth because, despite it being repeated an awful lot on Tumblr, Yahoo! Answers and Urban Dictionary, I've yet to find a single corroborating source for it. It's also nicely debunked here.

The single place we do know of the phrase being used (prior to Sherlock) is in the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

“I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases. —Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

So, it's a nice little nod to the original stories, as we know the writers of Sherlock are keen on doing.

But what does it mean in-universe?

This is definitely a codeword very precisely targetted at John. Most likely, it's a reference to a case that Sherlock and John worked on together. The fact that it isn't explained in any more detail than "saying 'Vatican cameos' makes John duck" isn't particularly unusual for the series.

For example:

  • Sherlock attacking a corpse with a riding crop in the very first episode.
  • Sherlock harpooning a pig and arriving home (via the Tube!) drenched in blood at the start of The Hounds of Baskerville.

And even an example of a past case being a codeword:

  • In the unaired pilot, Sherlock says, "Angelo, headless nun" to refer to a past case. Angelo simply asks, "Same again?" and when Sherlock confirms, Angelo throws him out of the restaurant as if he were drunk.

Finally, this is brought up again in The Sign of Three, with slightly more explanation as to its meaning (if not its origin).

Sherlock: Vatican Cameos.
Mary: What did he say? What's that mean?
John: Battle stations. Someone's gonna die.

It's not clear whether it literally means "battle stations" or whether that's John's translation for this context (much as his translation for the previous context was "the safe is trapped, get down"). However, it's slightly more information than in Scandal.

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+1 for the reference to The Sign of Three. Regardless of its source, it was an understood code phrase between Watson and Holmes. –  Leatherwing Jun 2 at 23:17

Vatican Cameos is a codeword used between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. It originated in WW2 when a non-military figure would enter a military-base armed. Vatican Cameos would be shouted and everyone would duck.

Having been in the military, Dr. Watson understands Sherlock's meaning and does indeed duck.

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This might well be true, but I'd love to see a proper explanation of how and why the code was invented. –  matt_black Mar 1 at 12:08
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I've seen this answer a lot on Yahoo! Answers and on Tumblr. It's even the top explanation on Urban Dictionary. However, I've yet to see a corroborating source for it. Any chance you could add one? –  starsplusplus Jun 2 at 18:41

The code he wrote was 32-24-34, it isn't a word, it may be her figure since she was naked in the scene, and said she already told Sherlock the code. But how could Sherlock knew her exact figure? Well he could tell the buttons which had been pressed earlier, since he mentioned the first digit was 3 and 8 was never used, also when men with guns came inside and asked him to open the safe, she looked down on her body, but I don't know maybe she was telling him to duck after he opens the case, which was exactly what happened.

These are my observations, but hey I could be wrong.

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The question wasn't about the code, but the words he says when opening the safe. And by the way, it is even revealed later in the movie that it was indeed her figure. And well, it's Sherlock, if anyone could guess her exact figure just by looking, it would be him. –  Sonny Burnett May 17 '12 at 19:57

protected by DForck42 Sep 7 '12 at 15:15

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