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hoist with his own petard

August 12, 2016

Hoist with his own petard – one occasionally hears this expression used by people who know the metaphorical meaning but don’t know the literal one. They seem to think it has something to do with being strung up – hauled upwards on a rope. In fact it means “blown up with one’s own bomb”. I always imagine a petard as being one of those black spherical bombs with a fizzing fuse carried by cartoon anarchists. The word is of French origin and related to the verb péter, to fart (because a fart sounds like a small explosion, I suppose?).

Like so many of our familiar expressions this one is from Shakespeare: Hamlet says it just before his voyage to England, regarding the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who will die because of their part in the king’s plot to kill him. I don’t know whether Shakespeare made it up or simply used an existing idiom; but isn’t it remarkable that one man, writing over 400 years ago, chose or invented so many phrases that, because of their aptness, vividness and euphony are still in common use today?

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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    I always assumed Shakespeare used existing expressions if only because his audiences would have been baffled by his hundreds of neologisms but then everything has to start somewhere. General acceptance and usage is another matter. A Clockwork Orange’s Nadsat consisted of dozens of new, to English, words but how many entered the language? Droog is widely understood but little used and of Burgess’ own inventions were any adopted?

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