12 Things You Say Without Realizing You're Quoting Poetry

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Last year, we collected 21 idioms and expressions that have entered everyday language from Shakespeare's works, from the original “wild goose chase” in Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth’s "be-all and end-all." But the connection between everyday idioms and literature doesn’t end there—if you’ve ever talked about “the birds and the bees” or referenced "the best laid plans of mice and men," then you've inadvertently quoted some of the English language’s most famous poets.

1. No Man Is An Island

Used as a proverbial reminder that no one is entirely independent and that everyone relies in some way on other people, the phrase no man is an island comes from “Meditation XVII,” part of the metaphysical poet John Donne’s prose-poem Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

Donne wrote his Devotions, a series of 23 essays on life, death, health, and sickness while recovering from a near-fatal illness in the early 1620s and published them in 1624. The seventeenth of his devotions also includes another famous line …

2. For Whom the Bell Tolls (It Tolls For Thee)

Continue reading "Meditation XVII," and you’ll get to this line, which Ernest Hemingway took as the title of his 1940 novel:

… Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

3. An Albatross Around Your Neck

Dismissing something as an albatross around your neck implies that it is an annoying or burdensome problem or curse. The expression comes from the famous scene in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the eponymous seafarer shoots and kills an albatross—a sign of good luck or providence in naval folklore—after which his ship and its crew suffer a terrible series of mishaps:

Ah! well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

4. The Birds and the Bees

The origins of this phrase are obscure, but it’s generally believed to have been heavily inspired by Coleridge, who wrote in his 1825 poem "Work Without Hope":

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

5. Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Lord Byron is credited both with popularizing the phrase carpe diem in English (a line he stole from the Roman lyric poet Horace), and with the earliest use of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo as a metaphor for any similarly substantial loss or setback. But in the fourteenth canto of his epic poem Don Juan (c. 1823), Byron also gave us the proverb that “truth is stranger than fiction”:

’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!

6. A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

The proverb a thing of beauty is a joy forever is actually the first line of John Keats’s poem "Endymion" (1818):

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Referring to autumn as “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is also direct quote from Keats, and comes from the opening line of his 1820 ode "To Autumn."

7. Red in Tooth and Claw

If something is "red in tooth and claw," then it’s savagely or mercilessly brutal. The phrase has been used allusively to describe intensely competitive or clashing situations ever since Alfred, Lord Tennyson included the line in his 1850 poem, "In Memoriam A.H.H.":

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

8. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

According to Dante’s "Inferno," the words "abandon hope all ye who enter here" comprise the last of nine lines inscribed above the entrance to Hell. The phrase has existed in a number of different guises and wordings over the years, ever since parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy were first translated into English from the original 14th century Italian in the late 1700s; back then, this famous line was rendered as a less memorable, "Ye who here enter to return despair." But in 1814, the renowned English translator Henry Francis Cary finally gave us the template for the version we know today:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

9. Trip the Light Fantastic

The idiom trip the light fantastic is based on a line from John Milton’s 1645 poem, "L'Allegro":

Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;

The "trip" of trip the light fantastic doesn’t mean “stumble,” but rather “dance” or “move nimbly,” which was the word’s original meaning when it first appeared in English in the 14th century. The “light fantastic,” however, is entirely Milton’s invention and is meant to allude to the fantastical movements and gyrations made by divinely inspired dancers—he used it eight years earlier in "Comus" (1637), a verse “masque” that is also responsible (albeit in a fairly roundabout way) for the saying that “every cloud has a silver lining.”

10. Never the Twain (Shall Meet)

Commenting that never the twain shall meet implies that two things are polar opposites—so different, and so mutually opposed, that they will never reconcile or come together. The phrase is a direct quotation from the opening line of Rudyard Kipling’s "Ballad of East and West" (1889):

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

11. Less is More

It might sound like an old adage, but the widespread use of the phrase less is more is credited to the poet Robert Browning, who used it in his poem "Andrea del Sarto" (published 1855):

Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

12. The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

As well as giving John Steinbeck the title for his 1937 novella, the Scots poet Robert Burns gave us the phrase the best laid plans—or, in his original line, schemes—of mice and men in his 1785 poem, "To A Mouse":

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane [not alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, [Often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The phrase has been used ever since as a proverbial reminder that things don't often go to plan.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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