Oh, English. It’s like a language made by committee. A SNAFU of epic proportion, made up of the words and rules of pretty much the rest of the Indo-European language tree. English is weird—just check out the spelling of weird—and if you’re learning it as a second language, freaking hard and confusing. Many rules of grammar have long lists of exceptions, we spell things like crazy people, and just borrow from other languages whenever the hell we want. While technically a Germanic language, English pulls a fair bit from Greek and Latin, especially in terms of vocabulary. This is why knowing a little of these languages can help improve your English, and why Classicists tend to score better on the verbal sections of standardized tests like the GRE or MCATS. We also steal idioms, e.g., er, like that one actually. Idioms are cultural though, so why in the name of Zeus are we using phrases from a 2000 year old foreign culture? I might be barking up the wrong tree and biting off more than I can chew, but let’s chew the fat over a couple Classics idioms still more or less in use today. Enough beating around the bush, time to cut the mustard.
“You hit the nail on the head.” In Latin, rem acu tetigisti. The phrase comes from Plautus’ Rudens, act 5, scene 2 (just tetigisti acu there). There are also some other variants, like Cicero’s “vulnus acu punctum”. Modern versions might be something like “nailed it” or the like. The phrase in modern use seems to owe much of its popularity to P.G. Wodenhouse, whose iconic character Jeeves the Butler used the Latin as a catch-phrase. This should say something about P.G.’s legacy; not only did he forever doom anyone named Jeeves to life as a servant—Jeeves the hedge fund manager just doesn’t have the same ring—but his fictional character’s Latin catchphrase entered itself into our own vernacular.
“Between a rock and a hard place.” This one comes from Homer’s Odyssey and refers to Odysseus’ choice between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is the rock, in the Odyssey, a six-headed sea monster living in a rocky shoal that would kill a lot of his ship’s crew if he tried sailing through. Charybdis is the hard place, a monster that swallows and belches out water, creating a whirlpool capable of destroying Odysseus’ ship entirely. For the record, Odysseus chose Scylla, losing a dozen men in the process, but of course by the very definition of this idiom, he was screwed either way. Nowadays we have all sorts of similar phrases to describe being royally boned, but the “rock and hard place”, “Scylla and Charybdis”, and “devil and the deep blue sea” variants all stem from the reference in Homer.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Who would have thought an idiom about Rome would have originated from Classical antiquity? A lot of people? Ok, I’m not very clever. Variants and references to behaving according to the customs of one’s location actually appear throughout the literature, but the most common attribution is to St. Ambrose, as quoted by St. Augustine. Menander supposedly has a variant of this as well. Since the Bible has that reference to “give unto Caesar”, it shouldn’t be surprising the phrase comes from Christian authors.
“Line in the sand.” This is one of those cases where the exact origin in unknown, but there are lots of possible candidates and indirect references. The first is a Bible reference, John 8:6. Here, Jesus is said to draw a line in the sand. Some people dismiss this because the word in Greek is κατεγραφεν, which could be “write” instead of “draw”. This interpretation is supported by the fact that after speaking, he gets back down and doodles some more. I’m not that picky, grapho has a long enough dictionary entry where the distinction between “write” and “draw” is almost silly. Another possible origin involves Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid Empire from 175-164BC. He nearly conquered Egypt and the Ptolemaic Empire, is fairly famous for his role in the Maccabean Revolt—the one in the Bible—and was a complete pain in Rome’s ass. The story goes, as told by Livy and Polybius, that outside of Alexandria on his invasion of Egypt, Antiochus met the Roman ambassador, Gaius Popillius Laenas, who was there to prevent the conflict. In an act that can only be described as standard operating procedure for Roman diplomacy, Popillius gave him the order of the Senate to stand down and stop beating up the Ptolemies, then drew a circle around Antiochus and basically declared crossing the circle without an answer to be an act of war against Rome. Of course, a circle is not a line, technically.
A third possibility I think makes sense comes from how the Romans declared war. Unlike the modern era of secular government, the Roman world rarely separated religion and politics. To that end, a formal declaration of war involved the fetiales, one of the priestly orders of the Roman Republic. To get the gods on their side, the fetiales would take a spear and throw it towards enemy territory. The Romans dedicated a special area outside the Temple of Bellona for this purpose, essentially drawing a line that marked “enemy territory” where they could toss the Ceremonial War Javelin, or whatever they called it.
As a bonus, here’s two that have long since fallen out of practice, but still sound awesome.
“Go to the crows.” Sounds like something you would hear on Game of Thrones. This is basically the Greek version of go to Hell. It pops up in Aristophanes in a few different places and forms. Depending on how old your translation is it can be translated as anything from a very dry Victorian “Plague seize it!” to the more modern “Damn it!”
“Thrust a radish up the firmament.” Ok, I’ll admit, I just went off the deep end here. The word in Greek is ραφανιδοω, and it’s almost an inside joke among Classicists that the LSJ, the de facto gold standard Greek-English lexicon, defines it as the above. Like I mentioned, older translators were sometimes a bit squeamish about printing naughty words so this word is defined and translated quite literally, old timey polite style. The LSJ is somewhat famous for putting a lot of “vulgar” or “offensive” words in foreign languages like Latin. For example, looking up βινεω brings up the Latin “inire, coire”, because apparently a bad Greek word in Latin was supposed to fool Classicists. A more colorful translation would be “shove a radish up your ass.” The word is from Aristophanes, the ancient master of dick jokes. This isn’t really an idiom, I just want it to be one. But radish insertion does have its own wiki page.
The principle is sort of long lasting though. We tell people to “shove it” constantly, and the idea of sodomy as a punishment, especially for cheaters, isn’t terribly far from many of our minds. I mean, it can’t just be me, right? Well, around the time when Adam Sandler stopped making comedies and started his own line of horror films—his crap scares me anyways—he made one called “Little Nicky”. In it, there’s a joke about the devil shoving a pineapple up Hitler’s Siegfried Line. So it isn’t just me. Thank the Fates for that.
These are just a few of the more famous and well known ancient idioms we use; I realize for some I’m treading old ground, but I want to keep this article relatively short. Doing research on this piece was a painful exercise; between finding I have a commonality with Adam Sandler and the disturbing Google results of searching “fruit insertion” (what did I think was going to happen?) I’ve been stretched wide to the limits of what I can take to write an article and find meaningful, informative content. I could have talked about Pyrrhic victories, Sisyphean tasks, and other such things, but I wanted to pick a few that were a little more off the beaten trail. If you didn’t like this article or my selection of idioms, feel free to thrust a radish up your firmament.
What? Are you mad I only cited Greek and Latin? You will appreciate it, because that’s how you know I’m not just making things up. Fortunately, there are a lot of lists of Latin phrases, idioms, and common sayings. You can look up an abundance just through Wikipedia and Wikiquote. There are also plenty of other writers with their own personal favorites. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad writers too who are just looking for click-bait. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said, “A lot of quotes on the internet are just made up nonsense.”
Here are a few sites I’ve found that are not, at a glance, trying to mess with your heads.
You can read more about the fetiales here.
If your Italian is decent, you can navigate a complete listing of St. Augustine’s works on this site, including the Latin.
On the subject of old and “polite” translations, Harvard has announced its next round of Loebs will not be so rigid. To which I say, about fucking time.