As a language grows it develops its own idioms, metaphors, proverbs and other figures of speech. These add to the richness and beauty of the language. Of course, these make it difficult for computer programs to translate the language to other languages.
I have a special interest in the idioms, metaphors and proverbs of the languages that I know: English, Hindi and Punjabi. These figures of speech tell us a lot about the culture and history of the people who speak these languages. These figures of speech are sometimes humorous, sometimes philosophical, sometimes historical but always interesting.
Today I will tell you the history of two English phrases: “Gordian Knot” and “Crossing the Rubicon”. The first is a metaphor and the second a idiom. But since we are talking about ancient history I could not resist adding one more to the list: laconic. But the interesting thing is that when we learn about these phrases we will encounter a few more almost by accident. J
First let’s talk about the Gordian Knot. Phrygia was a kingdom in Asia minor from 1200 BC to 700 BC. In Phrygia there was a city named Gordium. The city was named after its founder Gordius. According to a legend, at one time sometime in 8th century BC Phrygia was without a king. An oracle in the capital city of Telmissus declared that the next person coming into the city on a ox-cart would be the future king. Gordius was a poor peasant who was passing by on an ox-cart. He went into the city and was immediately made the king. The city was renamed Gordium.
Gordius’ son was Midas. And to thank the gods for making his father a king, he dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian gods. He tied the ox-cart to a post in the palace with a very complicated knot. This knot was known as the Gordion knot. And here we have accidently come to another English phrase: Midas touch. So this phrase is associated with King Midas of Gordium who tied the Gordion knot. All this happened in the 8th century BC.
A prophesy came to be associated with the Gordian knot. It was said that anyone who opened/solved the Gordian knot would become the king of Asia. As times changed the fortunes of Phrygia also changed. In the 4th century BC it became a mere province in the mighty Persian empire. But the Gordian knot and its legend stayed. In 333 BC Alexander reached Gordium while battling the Persian Army. He went to the palace and looked at the knot. He was told about the knot and its legend. Now Alexander wanted to be the king of Asia and the whole world. So he wanted to solve the Gordian knot. But mathematical puzzles did not interest Alexander. He went for the “direct” approach: he took out his sword and sliced the knot in one stroke thus opening it.
So the phrase Gordian knot refers to a extremely difficult/almost impossible problem which can only be solved by a direct, bold stroke of intuition, courage, creativity etc.
Now we come to the word “laconic”. When we say that someone has a “Spartan lifestyle” we mean highly regulated and disciplined. “Spartan diet” means frugal. These phrases come from the ancient Greek state of Sparta. The people there led extremely regimented and disciplined lifestyles. The Spartan society and its rules/culture are extremely interesting and worth reading. But we cannot go into that. However I must mention that while the people of Athens spent their lives in arts, education and culture, Spartans did not have time for such “soft skills”. They concentrated on preparation for war and discipline of the body. Even in their speech they were, er …Spartan. So they chose their words carefully and did not bother too much about eloquence and literary beauty.
Sparta was known by some other names also: Lacedaemon and Laconia. Alexander’s father, Philip wanted to conquer Sparta( Laconia). So he sent a message to the Spartan king: “ If I enter Laconia, I will burn your great city”. The answer from the Spartan king was a simple and terse , “If”. So the Spartans gave a laconic reply to Philip’s threat. So the word laconic means brief and terse.
Now, let’s talk about “crossing the Rubicon”. But for that we will have to move from Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Romans. These Romans are crazy, tap, tap, tap as Asterix would say. The Rubicon is a small river about 80 kilometres long in north Italy. In the roman empire this used to be the natural boundary that separated the rest of Europe from Italy. The ancient romans had a law which forbade any Roman general from crossing the Rubicon to come to Italy with his army. The roman general had to cross the Rubicon without his army. The aim of the rule was to make sure that no general tries to do a coup and topple the Roman republic.
Now, we all know that Caesar fought a lot of wars in Gaul between 58 to 51 BC. All of Gaul was captured( except the little village that we know so well J) and the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix threw down his weapons at Caesar’s feet( a scene captured so humourously in a few Asterix comics)
Rome was under the control of Pompey and Pompey knew that Caesar wanted control. So there was a lot of friction between the two. Caesar wanted to go back to Rome but did not want to go back without his army as was the rule. He knew that he may be killed by Pompey’s men. So Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and triggered a civil war in Rome. This ultimately resulted in Pompey’s death and Caesar’s victory.
So crossing the Rubicon refers to a decision which cannot be changed later or to cross a point of no return. Caesar knew that when he crossed the Rubicon with his army that things would not be the same again and Rome would be pushed into political turmoil. So he was crossing a point of no return when he crossed the Rubicon. One more interesting phrase is associated with the incident. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he said the words : “Alea iacta est” which translates to “the die has been cast”.
Another interesting fact. After Caesar’s death in 44 BC his name was used by Octavian who called himself Augustus Caesar. So Caesar became a title. Later, the emperors of Byzantine Empire and Ottoman empire continued to use Caesar as their title. For example in 1453 AD after the conquest of Constantinople Ottoman sultan Mahmed started calling himself “Caesar of the Roman Empire”.
The title Caesar was even used by the Germans. The word Kaiser is derived from Caesar. Even the Russian word Tsar/Czar is derived from Caesar! In India also there used to be a title “kaisar-e-hind” during the British rule- yes, derived from Caesar!
The study of language can be very interesting if one tries to find the historical origins of words and phrases.
Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides
go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,
instruct the planets in what orbs to run
correct old time, regulate the sun
Read my latest book, “Shadows of Lost Time”. http://shadows-of-lost-time.posterous.com/