Petards and Wringers in the Limelight

To sit on the fence. To miss the boat. To spill the beans. To kick the bucket. These are idioms – phrases whose meaning cannot be deduced from the words that form them, much to the chagrin of non-English speakers. Notwithstanding their concreteness, expressions such as these belong to the realm of figurative language, which, to paraphrase Shakespeare, age cannot wither, nor custom stale. Indeed, idioms are capable of enduring long after their source has lost all currency.

Take, for example, the expression, “to be hoist with one’s own petard.” Were it not for Shakespeare, the verb “to hoise” (of which “hoist” is the past participle) and “petard” or “petar’,” as it appears in Hamlet, would be known only to lexicographers and historians. “To hoise” means to raise aloft, and “petard,” dating from the Renaissance, denotes a small bomb used for breaching gates and walls. Thus, “to be hoist with one’s own petard” means, in a literal sense, to be blown into the air by the premature detonation of this explosive device. But what survives, long after petards were relegated to museums, is the figurative meaning with which Shakespeare imbued his words, namely, to be undone by the very means one has designed to undo others. So it is that the hunter who sets a trap only to stumble into it himself can be said to be “hoist with his own petard,” even though no explosion is involved.

An idiom of more recent origin that has also weathered dramatic changes in technology is “to put someone or something through the wringer.” Prior to the widespread adoption of automatic washing machines following World War II, “wringers” were used to squeeze water from newly washed laundry by passing it between two rollers, powered either by a crank or motor. The pressure exerted on the laundry and, occasionally, misdirected fingers was intense and gave birth to an idiom that has nothing to do with washing machines per se but rather concerns subjection to a severe ordeal or trial.

The evolution of this phrase, from statement of fact to figurative expression, can be seen in the daily press. In 1920, the Chicago Tribune contained a humorous story in which the writer described an unfortunate childhood decision “to put my newly washed hair through the wringer.” Thirty years later, the New York Herald Tribune reported that “the Yankees put the Red Sox through the wringer” by scoring 10 runs to Boston’s two.

Another idiom that long ago lost any living connection to its inspiration is “to steal the limelight,” which means to draw attention to oneself to the detriment of others. “Limelight” was an early nineteenth-century invention in which lime, also known as calcium oxide, is heated in a flame, producing an intense white light. Bearing no relation to the color green, “limelight” was widely used in theaters to illuminate important scenes or actors. Electric spotlights turned this burning substance into a historical curiosity, but the idiom it engendered flourishes, even in the context of Thanksgiving. There are, according to LifeBuzz, “seven vegan turkey substitutes that deserve to steal the turkey’s limelight.” A case of talking turkey if there ever was one – and a tribute to the potency of idioms.