Saturday, November 4, 2006


Living relics

When children avoid history, a colourful way of vivid recall could be through etymology. Not only words, figurative expressions too carry the history of man, as can be seen from these expressions.

The sea was once the primary means of long distance transport. This is obvious from the number of nautical expressions that pepper English. For instance, ‘to sail close to the wind’ originated in the nautical practice of steering a ship as near as possible to the point from which the wind is blowing while keeping the sails filled. Today, used in the figurative sense, it means ‘to take a chance or emerge from an escapade by a narrow margin or push the limits of what decency or propriety allows’. In the same vein, ‘to sail against the wind’ is to go against the trend or current practice and ‘to sail before the wind’ is to prosper, just as a ship sails smoothly and rapidly with a following wind. Similarly, ‘to sail into the wind’ is to attack or confront someone or something forcefully.

When one shares a secret, the warning is: ‘walls have ears’. This expression hails from the time of Catherine de Medici when certain rooms in the Louvre Palace, Paris, were constructed to conceal a network of speaking tubes called auriculaires so that what was said in one room could be clearly heard in another. In this way, the suspicious queen discovered state secrets and plots. Sometimes, the legend of Dionysus is held responsible for this expression. Dionysus, a tyrant of the fourth century B.C., was famous for his ‘ear’, a large ear-shaped underground cave cut in a rock and connected to another chamber in such a way that the dictator could overhear the conversation of his prisoners. The same tyrant gave the expression ‘Damocles’ sword’ as a figurative phrase for impending disaster in the midst of good fortune. Damocles was a sycophant who was invited to the palace of Dionysus to prove his wit. While seated at a sumptuous feast, a sword was suspended by a single hair over his head as a reminder of his fragile situation.