Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Greece’

If Looks Could Kill

Posted by Admin on February 5, 2014

Every once in a while you hear someone talk about a run-in they’ve had with a third party, and they state if looks could kill … oftentimes leaving the rest of the sentence unfinished. What they mean is that the third party was so angered by what the person had said or done, that they cast a nasty look in that person’s direction.

In the “Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board: Volume 351” the firing of David W. Lindgren on April 1, 1999 is addressed. Among other issues in this hearing was the fact that during voir-dire evidence, it was revealed that the witness had overheard other voir-dire testimony as he stood by the closed witness room door. Among the many twists and turns, the following was recorded:

Asked whether he stared at Lindgreen, George testified that he simply gazed at each driver, including Lindgren, in the room at various times, making eye contact per his training on how to address a group. George does not expressly deny staring at Lindgren, or giving him a “if looks could kill” stare at the beginning of the meeting, nor does he assert that he never saw the “Big O” on Lindgren’s shirt.

Author Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) wrote a number of plays including “The League Of Youth: A Comedy In Five Act” which was published in English in 1965 by Penguin Books (it was originally published in 1869). Madame Rundesholme — referred to as Madam in the play — is the widow of a local tradesman, Daniel Hejre is Daniel Hejre, Lundedstad is the farmer Anders Lundedstad, Mr. Stensgard is a lawyer, and Thora is Chamberlain Brattesberg’s daughter. The action takes place near a market town in the southern part of Norway. The expression is found in this passage.

MADAM:
Yes, of course I accept him. A girl’s got to be careful of philanderers, but when you’ve got it in black and white that a certain person’s intentions are honourable, why then … Oh look, here’s Mr. Stensgard, too! Well, Mr. Stensgard, aren’t you going to congratulate me?

HEJRE [to LUNDESTAD]:
If looks could kill …!

BRATTSBERG:
I’m sure he is, Madam Rundesholme, but won’t you congratulate your future sister-in-law?

MADAM:
Who’s that?

THORA:
Ragna — she’s engaged, too.

In the Saturday Evening Post edition of May 7, 1921, the story “Fifty Candles” by American novelist and playwright, Earl Derr Biggers (August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933) was shared with the readership. The story was said to be from the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898, stretching twenty years, and landing squarely in San Francisco, and the life of one Chang See. Interestingly enough, for those who don’t recognize the author’s name, he is primarily remembered for his detective stories featuring Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan (first introduced to readers in 1925 in the novel “The House Without A Key.”). But flirting with the idea of incorporating Asian culture into his stories was something that struck the author’s fancy after a trip to Honolulu where he wrote he did some “harmless loitering on the beach at Waikiki.”  In the Saturday Evening Post story, the following was written:

Harry Childs had never been in high favor in that court, and if looks could kill he would then and there have preceded his client into eternity. Outwardly, however, the judicial calm was unruffled.

Rolling back to January 1853 and “The New Monthly Magazine: Volume 97” in a story entitled, “Lisette’s Castles In The Air.”  It is attributed as being from the Danish author and poet, H.P. Holst (22 October 1811 – 4 June 1893) and transcribed by a Mrs. Bushby.

Her embarrassment adds fuel to the flames; the demon of jealousy is again at work in Ludvig’s mind, he utters not a syllable, but darting at her a glance that, if looks could kill, would have annihilated her on the spot, he seizes his hat, and is about to leave her. Lisette is in the greatest consternation. She tries to detain him. “Ludvig — dear Ludvig! I have — can you forgive …?”

“What have you done? What am I called on to forgive? You false, deceitful one!” he cries, passionately interrupting her, while he endeavours to break away from her.

“Oh, do not be so violent, Ludvig! I have been amusing myself with my dreams again. I have again been building castles in the air. Forgive me this once more! There is what I have been writing.”

Going back to April 1804 and the book “Oriental Customs, Or An Illustration Of The Sacred Scriptures By An Explanatory Application Of The Customs And Manners Of The Eastern Nations, And Especially The Jews, Therein Alluded To Together With Observations On Many Difficult And Obscure Texts, Collected From The Most Celebrated Travellers, And The Most Eminent Critics” written by Church of England clergyman, Samuel Burder (1773 – 1836). This book is introduced in the Preface as one that purports to provide mature examination of authenticated revelations, and determines the credibility of the Bible as connected with customs found in cultures of the East (meaning the Middle East and Asia). The following is written in the section entitled, “No. 532: Galatians ii.1.”

They believed that great mischief might ensue from an evil-eye, or from being regarded with envious and malicious looks. Pliny relates from Isigonus, that “among the Triballians and Illyrians there were certain enchanters, who with their looks could bewitch and kill those whom they beheld for a considerable time, especially if they did so with angry eyes.” (Nat. Hist. lib. vii.cap.2.)

And so the concept of looks being able to kill is traced back to the Triballians and the Illyrians by way of this passage. Triballians were an ancient tribe that inhabited what is now known as southern Serbia and western Bulgaria, and were influenced by the Celts, the Scythians, and the Illyrians. Illyrians were an ancient tribe that inhabited the western Balkans and the southeastern costs of the Italian peninsula. The tribe appears to have died out, according to historical records, in the 7th century. Both tribes are mentioned in Greek texts from as early on as the 4th century BC.

Pliny, is Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79), who was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher. At the age of 23, he was a junior officer in the Roman army, and from there he moved up the ladder to become a commander of a cohort, and then secured the position of commander of an ala. During this time, his knowledge and ability grew, and became more and more respected. What this means is that he had opportunity and occasion to interact with the tribes to which he referred in his writings. It is here that Pliny referred to some Triballian and Illyrian “[women] who had double eye balls, [who] had power to hurt others on whom they fixed their eyes.”

Greek mythology dates back to between 900 and 800 BC, and while it’s possible that the abilities attributed to some Triballian and Illyrian women may be as a result of the myth of Perseus and Medusa.  Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters (the three sisters being Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale). It was said that Medusa had the ability to turn to stone those who gazed upon her countenance.

That being said, Greek mythology seems to pre-date the Triballians and Illyrians, and so it is reasonable to identify this idiom as being one that comes straight from the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa.

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Beat The Air

Posted by Admin on August 1, 2011

When someone beats the air, it’s because he or she is fighting without accomplishing anything.  If you imagine someone’s arms flailing about at nothing, that’s a good literal representation of the figurative meaning of the phrase beat the air.

On July 17, 2006, the Boston Globe published a story by staff writer, Ron Borges in their Sports section about a boxing match between Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley entitled, “Mosley Back In Picture: Vargas Fades Out.”  It began by reporting the following:

This rematch ended far more decisively than their meeting Feb. 25. Although Mosley stopped [Fernando Vargas] both times, the first fight ended when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to prevent Vargas from fighting the last two rounds because his left eye was swollen shut. When Cortez waved his hands, Vargas beat the air with his fists and insisted he would have beaten down the tiring Mosley had he been given the chance.

The Hartford Courant published a short news article entitled, “Let’s Talk It Over” on December 17, 1944 that stated in part:

How easy it is to pass the buck for our failures, to flounder through life blaming somebody else or even some thing else instead of ourselves. I’m thinking of Hannah, nearing 30. She has a job of a sort ….

It explains how desperate Hannah is to secure a husband and includes this bit of insight:

No wonder he always runs. What a pity no one tips Hannah off. What a shame for her to beat the air from one year to the next.

In New Zealand, the Marlborough Express published a news story on April 21, 1904 about then Opposition leader, Mr. Massey and how the electorate in New Zealand saw both him and his party.  The following is an excerpt of that news story.

It is too late in the day to go back to first principles to find a line of party cleavage.  And to tell the people that the present Government has fallen away from the lines of grace laid down by Mr. Ballance is to beat the air to no purpose.  The old lines are obliterated beyond all human power of redrawing, as Mr. Massey himself admitted when he contended that there is nothing to find fault with in the legislation of the Government, which is the party in power.

On November 5, 1841 the Public Ledger newspaper republished a story run in the Morning Herald entitled, “The Corn-Law Repealers And The Government.”  Lord Melbourne who was said to have “contempt for facts and realities” verbally attacked the Duke of Wellington for “simply stating a truth as palpable to everyone who will use his senses as the nose that completes and adorns his face, and on Saturday morning he was forthwith denounced as a monster and a modern Herod.”  The Duke of Wellington had angered Lord Melbourne because the Duke “announced a fact adverse to dishonest and unsuccessful agitation” and Lord Melbourne was now painting him as “cruel” because the Duke refused to deceive the public.  This comment was included in the story:

Unfortunately for the whig press it might “as well beat the  entrenchant air” as attack the Duke of Wellington; the character of the noble Duke is a national concern; and in whig abuse of his grace the people of England feel themselves insulted.

Going back several centuries to the days of the Apostles, the lower regions of the atmosphere was referred to as air as opposed to the higher regions of the sky which was referred to as the heavens (1 Thess. 4:17; Rev. 9:2; 16:17).  Ancient philosophers regarded air as an element since they didn’t know that air is essentially a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with a small amount of carbon dioxide.  This is important to note as the expression beat the air is found in the Bible.  In fact, the earliest published version of the phrase beat the air is attributed to St. Paul.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.  (1 Corinthians 9:26)

While it’s true that boxing was a sport that ancient Romans and ancient Greeks enjoyed, and while it’s true that there are accounts of boxers beating the air prior to a boxing match, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this phrase.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Bible, Christian, Greece, Religious References, Rome | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

For Goodness Sake

Posted by Admin on June 9, 2010

On Wednesday, February 22, 1922, the New York Times reported that “an agreeable if not brilliant musical comedy fashioned by various hands accustomed to the trade and briskly produced last night in the Lyric Theatre” opened to rave reviews with siblings Fred Astaire playing the role of Teddy Lawrene and Adele Astaire playing the role of Suzanne Hayden in the play “For Goodness Sake.”   It was reported that the siblings were “developing into delightful comedians.”

Prior to that, it was used often and as with so many other phrases, it can be found in one of Shakespeare’s plays.  In this instance, it can be found in “Henry VIII” in Act 3, scene 1 when Wolsey says:

For goodness sake, consider what you do, how you may hurt yourself—ay, utterly grow from the King’s acquaintance, by this carriage.”

It is believed that Henry VIII was written shortly before 1613, the year in which the Globe Theatre burned down during one of the play’s earliest known performances.  It is believed that the play was relatively new and had not been presented more than 2 or 3 times prior to the fire.  However, the term was already in vogue more than a century before Shakespeare made use of it. 

On December 21, 1502 Niccolo Machiavelli‘s friend and colleague, Biagio de Buonaccorsi wrote to Machiavelli regarding the latter’s wife who complained weekly to Buonaccorsi about her husband’s absense.  Machiavelli had to leave his wife almost as soon as they were married due to business demands, leaving her to struggle with managing his personal and financial affairs.  She pleaded with Buonaccorsi to write to her husband on her behalf.  In his letter he wrote:  “Monna Marietta blasphemes God, and thinks that she has thrown away both herself and her property. For goodness’ sake give orders that she may have her own dower, like others of her position, otherwise she will lose all patience with you.”

This minced oath is even older than that as some English translations of Plato‘s Republic indicates that when Glaucon encouraged Socrates to continue his consideration of “goodness” Glaucon asked Socrates to continue “for goodness’ sake.”

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Greece, Idioms from the 16th Century, Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Killed By Kindness

Posted by Admin on April 13, 2010

Thomas Heywood, the English dramatist, is most famous for his plays dealing with contemporary English life. Heywood’s best play, A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603), is one of the finest examples of domestic tragedy in the English drama.

However, the phrase is goes back to Ancient Greece where Draco, the Athenian legislator met with his death in 590 BC.  His death was due completely to his popularity. 

Greeks used to wave their caps and cloaks about as a sign of approval and if they were particularly impressed and overly enthusiastic, they would toss their clothing at the object of their enthusiasm and excitement.  Draco was enormously popular with the population and on this particular occasion, Draco was smothered to death in the theatre of Ægina from all the caps and cloaks showered on him by the spectators.

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