In Historic Terms

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

What's in a name one might ask - well what's in a historical term one might add? Here are some idiomatic expressions and their historical meaning....just thought you might be interested to know....



Through the multitude of events and situations that have occurred throughout the centuries, history becomes a source of reference whichteaches us many things. Some of the episodes in history have not only been documented and read in our school books, but also has been transcended to us, from generation to generation by word of mouth. Outstanding historical episodes are often recalled during our everyday parlance in order to prove a point. Well maybe not exactly every day, but abecdotes from history are stored in our minds to be used whenever we feel we require to quote.

Quite often these happenings, or state of being from ancient times, are popped up into our mouths in the form of phrases, idioms, proverbs, adjectives, anecdotes or analogies.

Here is a short list of such phrases and idioms.  These examples are taken from myths, legends, histories, as well as from observations of past societies and their environment. 

A Trojan horse  This is a reference of someone, but since computer science has evolved also of a device, intent to destroy his opponent from within. 

Homer recounts in his Illyad the mythological battle of Troy.  This came about following the abduction of Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. After a ten year long war that was waged without any significant victory by either side, the Greeks laid a plan whereby they feigned departure from Troy in their fleet, but left behind a large hollow wooden horse as a gift to the Trojans. The intention was to have their soldiers hide inside the belly of the horse so that during the dead of night these would then emerge out of their hiding place to attack their enemy. A related saying goes like this: ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.’ The term Trojan is of course used nowadays in the identification of certain computer programmes that are intended to attack the computer system some time after it is installed. 


Laconic  To give a laconic reply means to be terse, abrupt and almost rude in the way one addresses his listeners. This adjective was first used in English literature in the late 16th century. The word “laconic” is derived from the name of the Greek mountainous region of Lakonikos, of which Sparta was the capital. The term refers to the traditional hearsay that the Spartans, unlike most Greeks, had an uncommunicative character by nature.  Even their speeches were brief in comparison.  Similarly, the phrase ‘to lead a Spartan way of life’ means to live in a very frugal manner, shorn of any luxuries or comforts.

Achieving a Pyrrhic victory Pyrrhus was an ambitious king who ruled the city-state Epirus, Greece, in 297-272 BC.  Through a series of battles he managed to restore the strength of his kingdom and campaigned against the Romans in support of the Greek colonies in Italy (280 – 275 BC). During the course of numerous battles, the losses of his armies were immense, so much so that later historians took them as prime examples, whenever referring to a victory that sustained heavy losses. 

Crossing the Rubicon The idiom ‘to cross the Rubicon’ means to pass a point of no return.

This phrase refers to the supposed historic crossing of Julius Caesar’s army of the river Rubicon in 49 BC.  The Rubicon was an 80 kilometre river that ran across the Emilia Romagna region, from the Appenines to the Adriatic Sea. In those times it was prohibited for  Roman military commanders to cross this river with their armed legions when returning home from  battle.  Marching any further south than the Rubicon river while still armed was  a sign of insurrection and thus seen as a threat to the Republican government of Rome.  Once Julius Caesar were to shift his army from Ravenna where he was based southward and  beyond this line, he was proving beyond doubt his intentions to confront his rival Pompey and immerse Rome into a civil war.

Zealous  The term zealous which refers to a person who is over enthusiastic in his deeds, was first applied from the Greek zeloun which means to be zealous, a fanatical enthusiast to a cause. This term was referred to a Jewish faction, which during the Roman rule of Palestine was considered to be ultra Jewish in its beliefs.  After their revolt of AD 66-73, the Zealots were annihilated by the Romans at their last stand on Mount Masada.  One of the Apostles of Christ named Simon was identifiable by his nickname as Simon the Zealot.

Go / walk to Canossa This expression is used in various languages to show by example that even the mighty shall be humiliated, or as we say nowadays, are made to eat humble pie. 

When, during his papacy, Gregory VII (elected 1073 – died 1085) attempted to enact reforms to the investiture process of bishops within Christian Europe, he was met by much resistance from the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Henry insisted that he reserved the traditionally established right of previous Holy Roman Emperors to "invest" bishops and clergymen within his kingdom.

Henry renounced Gregory as pope; in return, Gregory excommunicated and deposed Henry, in the Lenten synod of 1076, at Rome. He stated furthermore that, were Henry not to recant by one year from that day, the excommunication would become permanent and irrevocable. In order for Henry to be pardoned and regain his crown he was to do penance and thus  Henry crossed the Alps barefoot into Italy to reach the town of Canossa, near Parma, where the Pope was staying.  He waited there for three days outside the Pope’s castle until summoned by the Pope.  Henry was thus humiliated in in no uncertain terms, in front of his subject nobles and proved beyond doubt the precedence of the Pope over that of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Macchiavellian PrincipleNicolò Macchiavelli (1469–1527) was an Italian statesman and writer under the Republic of Florence when the Medicis had returned to power in 1512.  In 1513, in the vain hope of regaining office, he wrote and dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici his book The Prince, a political manual describing the ruthless pragmatism of an idealized sovereign. When referring to the term Macchiavellian Principle, one is referring to the implications that Macchiavelli elaborated on, that the end justifies the means.  Not that Macchiavelli himself agreed to such principles.

He met his Waterloo  A term that refers to a final and irrevocable defeat of a once mighty power. 

The Battle of Waterloo which took place on 18 June, 1815, proved to be the decisive battle of the Napoleonic wars (1803 - 1815). Following his departure from exile in Elba, Napoleon fought his last battle, 19 kilometres south of Brussels, against the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blucher leading the Allied armies. In this battle Bonaparte was defeated and forced to abdicate his powers for the second time. In so doing he conceded his final defeat, in spite of his long years as a successful career as a military strategist and powerful ruler. 

Losing the Battle of the BulgeIn a joking manner this expression refers to one’s failing endeavours when on a diet,trying to lose body weight.The historic Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Counter Offensive), took place in 16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945.  This was a major German offensive launched through the densely forested Ardennes mountains of Wallonia on the Western front.

The description given refers to the way the Allied front line bulged inward due to the success of the Wehrmacht, on wartime news maps, as was reported in the contemporary press, and termed as ‘the Battle of the Bulge’. This, incidentally was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in World War II.

From here to Timbuktù When sending someone ‘from here to Timbuktù; one  is proving that something or someone may not be found in the known world.  Timbuktù is a town situated in the centre of Mali, in west Africa. Throughout the 19th century the region of Timbuktù remained elusive to many European explorers of Africa.  Indeed it gained a notoriety and and an aura of mystery, almost as a fabled region where abundant gold bullions were to be found.  It was only in 1893, that Mali and Timbuktù were taken over as a colony by the French.  In later years, this place was referred to by the British as a location that remained distant and outlandish to the collective mind.  Thus, the term ‘from here to Timbuktù’ refers to a far away place in the middle of nowhere.

Martin Morana

4th August 2015  ©


Submitted: August 05, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Martin Morana. All rights reserved.

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