It’s all Greek and Latin
Dr Rajan Philips -
We say: “It’s all Greek and Latin to me.’ (with a negative connotation) but there is a positive side to the story. Greek and Roman mythology have contributed many words and expressions that enrich English language. The colourful stories associated with them enhance our understanding. Here’s a bird’s eye view of just a handful of these gems.
When we talk of someone’s Achilles’ heel we are referring to his vulnerable spot. For instance we say: ‘She was on a diet regimen, but an irresistible love for chocolates proved to be her Achilles’ heel’. The mythical context is the life of Achilles, the Greek hero. His mother Thetis, a sea goddess, dipped him into River Styx, to make him invincible. But while doing so, she held him by the heel. That left a small unprotected part. During the Trojan war he was killed when an arrow from the enemy hit that unshielded spot.
The saying ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts…’ warns us to be wary of any gift from an untrustworthy person who may have an ulterior motive. The mythical allusion is to a crucial event in the Trojan war. Finding that they were not making any headway against the Trojans, the Greeks devised a cunning plan. Pretending to be sailing away, they left behind a huge wooden horse as a parting gift.
As the Trojans celebrated the end of the gruelling war, the select Greek warriors hidden inside the Trojan horse came out and ransacked the city. The gift from the Greeks triggered their downfall.
Still with the Trojan War, we have the expression the ‘Face that launched a thousand ships’. It is a key line in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Faustus’. It directly refers to Helen of Troy, considered the most beautiful woman in the world who also became the cause for a major war.
Paris, a Trojan prince had taken away Helen, the wife of Menelaus the King of Sparta. All the Greek princes who had courted Helen were bound by an oath to protect her. They now set off in a thousand ships on a military adventure to recover Helen and punish the Trojans.
Next, for the Gordian knot which means an extremely perplexing problem. The expression zeroes in on King Gordius of Phrygia who created a complex knot.
It was believed that whoever untied it would become the undisputed lord and master of Asia. Legend has it that after several frustrating attempts to untie it, Alexander the Great simply cut the Gordian knot with his sword.
Now, for a Herculean Effort’. The expression means a great or superhuman effort. The obvious reference is to Heracles or Hercules who was constrained to carry out twelve tough tasks, called the Labours of Heracles.
Occasionally, don’t we find ourselves ‘tantalisingly’ close to success or victory? A case of being so near and yet so far. ‘Tantalising’ can be traced to the myth surrounding Tantalus who was condemned to an agonising eternal punishment.
He had to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit eluding his grasp whenever he reached out, and the water always receding before he could drink.
Finally, today odyssey signifies an adventure or momentous journey. The link is with ‘Odyssey’ the classical Greek epic by Homer. The eponymous hero takes nine long adventure packed years before completing his return voyage to Greece.
I have unveiled here just a tiny fraction of the treasure house of language expressions we owe to Greek mythology. Even as we employ them in our everyday lives, an insight into their mythical origins will certainly add value to our language communication.
A culture or society without mythology would die. — Robert Redford