Historical Allusions

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
  • Benedict Arnold: Benedict Arnold (1741–1801), was a successful general for the American colonies during the Revolutionary War before switching sides and fighting for the British. His name has become synonymous with “turncoat.” Everything was going well until that Benedict Arnold, Diane, gave our trade secrets to the competition.
  • Bowdlerize: Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) is best known as the editor of The Family Shakespeare, a popular edition in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” To bowdlerize is to remove potentially offensive passages from a work of literature or drama. A bowdlerized version of Sex and the City was created for syndication on broadcast TV.
  • Boycott: Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland. In 1880, in the midst of controversy over the “Irish Land Question,” he and his family were ostracized by the community. An organized refusal to deal with, or buy from, a given person or company is now referred to as a boycott. The club decided to boycott any cosmetics company that tested products on animals.
  • Casanova: Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (1725–98) was a famous Venetian adventurer and writer who romanced well over a hundred women in the course of his travels. In modern parlance, a Casanova is a charismatic man with a reputation for having many romantic conquests. I know he's a Casanova, but I can't resist those eyes.
  • Donnybrook: Donnybrook is the name of a village in Ireland that was home to an annual fair beginning in 1204. It became famous for drunken brawling, which led to the fair being permanently banned in 1855. A free-for-all brawl is now known as a donnybrook. Nobody was sure how the donnybrook started, but it landed three partygoers in the hospital.
  • Draconian: A lawmaker in Athens in the 7th century B.C., Draco's legal code was unusually severe, meting out the death penalty for minor offenses. Laws are now referred to as Draconian when they're perceived as offering excessively harsh penalties. The activists sought to change the Draconian jaywalking laws.
  • Fiddling while Rome burns: It is widely believed that the Roman emperor Nero displayed indifference during the 64 A.D. Great Fire that consumed much of Rome, even to the extent of fiddling merrily. As it happens, the fiddle hadn't been invented yet, and it's uncertain how Nero reacted, but such concerns have no effect on popular usage. To fiddle while Rome burns is to waste time on unimportant or self-indulgent matters during a time of crisis. The city has its highest unemployment rate in decades, while the mayor attends upscale parties; she's fiddling while Rome burns.
  • Pyrrhic victory: Pyrrhus (c. 318 B.C.–272 B.C.), king of Epirus, won many battles but overextended himself. After defeating the Romans in 279 B.C. while sustaining very heavy losses, Pyrrhus declared “one more such victory and I am lost.” A pyrrhic victory is a victory won at too great a cost. In a Pyrrhic victory, he managed to grab the last muffin, but he lost the goodwill of his friends.
  • Rich as Croesus: Croesus, king of Lydia until 547 B.C., was famous for his great wealth. Somebody said to be rich as Croesus is being described as extremely wealthy. Bill Gates is as rich as Croesus!
  • Sell down the river: During the early- to mid- 19th century in the American South, slaves were transported down the Mississippi River for sale to plantations where the work was harder. To sell another person down the river is to betray him or her for one's own benefit. The CEO sold his employees down the river by cutting their benefits while raising his own salary.
  • Sybaritic: The Greek city of Sybaris was founded in 820 B.C. and destroyed in 510 B.C. Along the way, it was inhabited by wealthy people, who were reputed to live in luxurious self-indulgence. Accordingly, a sybarite is somebody devoted to luxury and pleasure, and sybaritic is the adjectival form. The sybaritic banquet included four kinds of caviar, foie gras, and a $5,000 bottle of wine with each course.
  • Waterloo: The 1815 Battle of Waterloo was the final military action of French emperor Napoleon, in his last attempt to keep power. His troops were crushed by a coalition of European forces, forcing him to abdicate and accept exile for the second—and final—time. Waterloo has become a term referring to a decisive, crushing defeat of any sort. She met her Waterloo at the Iowa caucus.

See also: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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