Words And Reason: Literary Allusions

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

At one point, when talking with someone younger than I am, I commented on something that ended well as going out in a blaze of glory. The younger person brightened and asked, “Oh, so you like Guns and Roses?” Not seeing the connection I admitted that I didn’t know their music. “That’s who said, ‘go out in a blaze of glory.’” Well, they may have said it, but not first. It is, like a lot of what folks say, an allusion to something someone else wrote or said. Shakespeare and the Bible give us the majority of the most common allusions, but stacks of other writers have contributed to our language—though fewer and fewer people know it all the time. (As for “blaze of glory,” that appears to have originated in John Dryden’s poem “The Hind and the Panther,” written in 1686.) Below is just a smattering of allusions. There will be more in time.

Best laid plans of mice and men This line, often used as things come crashing in, refers to a line in the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. In the poem, Burns, while plowing a field, has turned up the nest of a field mouse, he mourns that his activity has disrupted the mouse’s careful preparations. “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley” (go oft awry). It’s a lovely poem that is not often read in the United States as the Scottish dialect in which it is written makes it hard for most readers to understand. Yet one of the most famous verses is easy to grasp and is perhaps the best known from the poem.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union,

An’ justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle,

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,

An’ fellow-mortal!

Big Brother is watching you In his novel 1984, George Orwell satirizes murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the totalitarian rule of Communism in the Soviet Union. Posters everywhere remind the terrorized populace that “Big brother is watching you.” Orwell feared that this could occur in other societies, if people were not careful. Today, Big brother has come to mean any authority that has you under observation.

Catch-22 In Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, Catch-22, the main character, Captain John Yossarian, tries to get out of fighting during World War II by proving that he is insane. The “catch” is that, according to regulations, wanting to avoid fighting proves you are not insane. Only going happily into battle would make him look insane. The book became a cult classic, and the term catch-22 entered the English language as a reference to any situation where you lose regardless of which decision you make.

Last hurrah Taken from the title of Edwin O’Connor’s book The Last Hurrah, which was inspired by the life of unconventional Boston politician James Curley. The expression last hurrah now refers to the last effort or action, sometimes triumphant and sometimes tragic, of someone coming the end of his or her career.

Sour grapes An allusion to a fable by Aesop, in which a fox tries but fails to get a bunch of grapes, and then states that they were probably sour anyway. So “sour grapes” is devaluing something just because you can’t get it.

So shines a good deed in a weary world. This famous line from the first Willy Wonka move alludes to Shakspeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. The original line is “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

Take it with a grain of salt Romans believed that salt could make dangerous or tainted food safe, hence, anything suspicious was “taken with a grain of salt.” A prescription to take something (in this case, an antidote to poison) cum grano salis was first recorded by Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23-79) in his Natural History.

Ugly American Allusion to a book by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick about the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. The Ugly American of the title is both a physically ugly individual who cares about the people and the handsome but morally ugly individuals who do not care, and who create problems. Today, the term has come to refer only to Americans who behave badly in foreign countries and represent America poorly.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.