The other day, I wrote a check. Yes, I still write checks. #oldschooliscool My stomach churned as I wrote that painful number on the paper, and I may or may not have broken out into a cold sweat.
In case you haven’t written any checks, there’s a line at the bottom where you write the purpose for the check. I looked at the administrative assistant, who was probably no older than twenty-two, and said, “I kind of want to write ‘pound of flesh’ in the purpose line.” Her eyebrows raised and she looked at me as if she were contemplating whether I was silly-crazy or call-the-cops-right-now-crazy.
I suddenly realized that she had no idea what I was talking about, and I said, “You know, like in the play The Merchant of Venice. Paying a pound of flesh.” She shook her head and said that she had never heard of the phrase or the play. I explained that it was a line from a Shakespearean play where one of the characters was required to pay off a debt with a pound of his flesh, and his friends and family try to get him out of his debt. It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the gist of it. Thankfully, the administrative assistant relaxed, took her hand off of the telephone (although she had already pressed the 9 and 1 on it), and said, “Cool. You learn something new every day.”
I know that I’m a nerd in almost every sense of the word, and I’m definitely a literature nerd. Yet, I was truly surprised that she was unfamiliar with that literary allusion. It seems like where literary references once reigned supreme, they now have been usurped by phrases invented by reality TV stars and YouTubers. I’m not necessarily saying that the new colloquialisms are bad (although I will never understand “so Gucci”—that just sounds stupid to me). After all, I do love me some Jenna Marbles and her “beautuber” work. However, I think that we should bring back the literary references too. You know, let the old and new intermingle together to create a hodgepodge of cultural references. Here are some literary references that I think we should use more often so that they don’t become forgotten. It’ll be so Gucci if you do . . . . Nope. “So Gucci” is still stupid.
Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments below. Are there some popular new phrases that have the same meanings as the phrases I have listed?
1. “White whale/Moby Dick” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Am I talking about the artist Moby? No. Although, he’s worth a listen. The Moby I’m talking about is the giant white whale that Captain Ahab obsessively hunts because the doggone whale went and bit off Ahab’s leg. That wasn’t very nice. Then again, whaling isn’t very nice either. Used as a literary allusion, someone’s white whale is essentially some goal that they’re chasing despite the difficulty in achieving that goal, and that person oftentimes has an obsessive edge in his/her drive to obtain that goal.
I’ve used this term when discussing something that I really want. For example, I use the term in this post [click here].
2. “Pandora’s box” from Hesoid’s Works and Days. I think that this reference to Greek mythology might still be used to some degree partly because of Pandora Radio. There are a couple different translations and interpretations of the myth of Pandora’s box, but the most well-known one is that a woman named Pandora opened a box from the gods that contained a whole gaggle of evil things like sickness and death. She tried to close it before all of the evils escaped and were unleashed into the world, but she couldn’t. When the worst entities had all bolted, there remained one thing left at the bottom of the box—hope. This last bit about hope isn’t usually included in our modern-day referencing to Pandora’s box. Instead, we usually say something like, “we opened Pandora’s box” to mean that we started something that is going to be a lot of trouble. It’s the equivalent to the cliché of “opening a can of worms.” I’m not sure where that cliché comes from though. There’s nothing inherently troublesome about worms, I don’t think. Why not a can of ants? Those seem a lot worse than worms, particularly because ants bite more often than do worms (yes, there are biting worms). I hate ants.
3. “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Even if you haven’t read the play, you probably know about the Roman leader/maniacal dictator Julius Caesar being assassinated by some of his closest confidants. One of those confidants was his best friend, Brute (although, most people usually say Brutus instead of Brute). Supposedly, Caesar really did say this line after Brute stabbed him, and the line has come to indicate a betrayal of epic proportions. I just love the idea of saying this to someone who has stabbed me in the back. Well, not a literal stabbing hopefully. Actually, I hope that people don’t do this to me figuratively either. But, if they do, you better believe that I’ll be whipping out this literary allusion.
4. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Good old Shakespeare does it again. This line occurs when one of the characters watches a play and declares that one of the actresses is overacting and that her proclamations of love and loyalty are too over the top to be believable. So, this is a great allusion to use if someone is excessively protesting or insisting on something and you don’t quite believe their sincerity or if you just want to tease them a little. If you want to take gender out of it, I guess that you could always say, “Thou doth protest too much, methinks.” You can’t leave out the “methinks.”
5. “Chasing windmills” from Cervantes’s The Man of La Mancha. I used to hear this phrase every now and again, but I haven’t heard it used in years, and I really think that we should bring it back. The concept originates with Don Quixote, which is the chosen knight name of the nobleman Alonso Quixano. He’s a fella who becomes obsessed with the ideas of chivalry and romance after he reads a bunch of chivalric romances. You know, kind of like how some teenage girls got all into vampires after they read Twilight. But Don Quixote takes it to another level by losing his sanity and believing that he actually is a knight (he’s not). He roams the Spanish countryside trying to serve his country, revive chivalry, save damsels, and slay dragons, which are actually windmills. Yes, Don Quixote whacked at windmills with his sword because he believed them to be actual dragons. Here’s where the “chasing windmills” phrase comes from. Admittedly, it’s actually a mixed metaphor because it mixes “chasing rainbows” and “tilting windmills,” but “tilting windmills” just sounds weird to me and no one ever says that, except maybe the Brits. I have some British readers, so do you guys ever use that phrase? Anyway, “chasing windmills” refers to going after pipedreams, chasing after some delusion of grandeur, or attacking imaginary enemies. Although for the attacking imaginary enemies meaning, you might want to use “tilting windmills” instead of “chasing windmills.” But, again, I’ve never heard anyone use “tilting windmills.”
Interestingly, Don Quixote and his worrisome windmills are heavily referenced in Adam Sandler’s movie Jack and Jill. It has Al Pacino in it who acts as Don Quixote in more ways than one. I love the movie for it’s wonderful cringey glory, and I made The Ranger [click here to see who The Ranger is] watch it. Yeah . . . sometimes I don’t know why he stays with me either.
My friends and I, as we’ve gotten older, like to ask brightly “do I dare to eat a peach?” It’s a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” partly to excoriate people who didn’t recognize literary allusions, so he’d be right there with you, only ever-so-much-more-so (which is a phrase from Homer Price).
Nice! Those are great allusions! I might have to steal/borrow those for when I’m talking to someone. 🙂 Thanks for reading!