Orgins of Green and Roman Phrases

From Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

Achilles' Heel

An Achilles’ Heel is a perceived weakness in someone or something otherwise considered solid and perhaps infallible. As the ancient Greek legend goes, Thetis dipped her son Achilles into the river Styx with the intention of making his skin armour-like and impenetrable. But she held him by his heel, which remained out of the water and as a result his only vulnerable spot. Achilles grew up to be an invincible soldier but his deadly enemy, Paris, learned of his weakness and killed him during the Trojan War with an arrow shot straight at his heel. Homer told the full story in his Iliad.

At Bay

To keep something At Bay, such as danger or illness, means to fend it off and not be affected by it. In ancient history the bay tree was thought to possess great protective powers, as they never seemed to be struck by lightning. Romans and Greeks would seek shelter under a bay tree during storms and warriors took to wearing bay leaves as a means of protection against both the enemy and thunderstorms in an attempt to keep them ‘at bay’. During the Great Plague of London in 1665 city folk did the same in the hope they would avoid the disease and keep the plague ‘at bay’.

Real Brick

When somebody is described as a Real Brick they are complimented on their reliability and their solid and dependable nature, somebody beyond the call of duty. The ancient Greek legend of the city of Sparta tells a story of its king, Lycurgus, who had failed to build defensive walls around his kingdom, as was the custom of the day. When questioned about this King Lycurgus is said to have pointed to his soldiers and replied, ‘But I have a wall, and every man is a brick.’

Beware of Greeks Bearing GIfts

The phrase Beware Of Greeks Bearing Gifts is a friendly warning against trickery and deception. This phrase refers to the most famous Greek gift of all, the Trojan Horse. During the Trojan Wars the Greeks had besieged the city of Troy for over ten years. Finally, as they made plans to leave, they built a huge wooden horse as an offering to the gods and a sign of peace. The horse was left at the gates of Troy and, once the Greeks had withdrawn, the people of Troy opened their gates, for the first time in a decade, to receive the apparently harmless gift. However, as soon as the horse was inside, Greek soldiers poured out of the wooden structure and destroyed the city. Virgil, in the Aeneid (II.49) has Laocoon warn the Trojans about accepting the horse, saying, ‘I still fear the Greeks, even when they offer us gifts.’

Lap of the Gods

A situation that is in the Lap Of The Gods is one where the outcome is unclear and cannot be influenced in any meaningful way. Early suggestions for the origin of this saying predictably pointed to the practice in many cultures of leaving gifts with statues of gods in the hope of answered prayers. But Homer’s Iliad probably holds the answer. In the story Patrocolos, a friend of Achilles, is killed by the Trojans who then intended to parade his severed head to demoralise their opponents. With the battle in the balance, and the outcome uncertain, Automedon declared, ‘These things lie on the knees of the gods.’ On hearing this Achilles returned and led an unexpected rout of the Trojans, confirming to all that the gods were well and truly on the side of the famous warrior

Lily Livered

Lily Livered is a term used for cowards, or cowardly behaviour. The ancient Greeks had the custom of sacrificing an animal on the eve of each battle and the animal’s liver was considered a major omen. If it was red and full of blood all the signs were positive but, if the liver was pale and lily-coloured, it was thought to signify bad tidings. The Greeks also believed the liver of a cowardly person was pale and lily-coloured.

Mealy Mouthed

When a person is described as Mealy Mouthed the implication is they are unwilling to speak plainly or openly about something, in case what they have to say offends. It is often used as a derogatory term for somebody who is trying to please others. Its origin can be found as a phonetic adaptation from the ancient Greek ‘melimuthos’ which means, literally, ‘honey speak’.

Mountain out of a Molehill

To make a Mountain Out Of A Molehill means to exaggerate something out of all proportion. The original phrase was ‘to make an elephant out of a fly’ and dates back to the ancient Greek satirist Lucian, who lived in AD 2. But in 1548 Nicholas Udall wrote Paraphrase Of Erasmus which includes the line: ‘Sophists of Greece could, through their copiousness, make an elephant of a fly and a mountain of a molehill.’ The original expression has long been forgotten but Udall’s replacement remains a commonly used phrase.

Spill the Beans

To Spill The Beans is a widely used term for giving away a secret. A tradition that began in ancient Greece for electing a new member to a private club was to give each existing member a white and brown bean with which to cast their votes. The white bean was a yes vote and the brown meant an objection. The beans were then secretly placed in a jar and the prospective member would never know how many people voted either for or against him. Unless, that is, the jar was knocked over and the beans spilled. Then the club members’ secret would be out.

No Stone Unturned

Leaving No Stone Unturned is a phrase we use to describe having made all possible efforts to complete a task. After the Greeks defeated the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 477 BC, Polycrates set about finding the treasure he thought had been left in the tent of the Persian general Mardonius. After searching everywhere he turned to the oracle at Delphi who advised him to ‘move every stone’ in his search. Polycrates took that advice and subsequently found the treasure. The phrase soon became popular and only a few years later, in 410 BC, Aristophanes called it ‘that old proverb’. At nearly 2,500 years old, ‘no stone unturned’ may even be our oldest idiom.