Everyday English drawn from Greek mythology

A while back, I wrote a blog post about words and expressions that come from literature, but which have passed into everyday use. Today, inspired by a recent conversation with my daughter, who’s currently obsessed with Greek mythology, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the way the ideas from old myths and stories become embedded in the language and understood even by those unfamiliar with their origins.

One morning, I was having breakfast with my kids and the news was on the radio. My daughter heard the newsreader claim that ‘the NHS (the National Health Service) will be the government’s Achilles heel at the next election’ and immediately started lecturing her brother, who’s three years younger, on where the expression came from. You can imagine how grateful a grumpy eleven-year-old who’s not much of a morning person would be in such circumstances, I’m sure!

According to the myths about the Trojan war, Achilles was the most handsome, bravest and best warrior in Agamemnon’s army. As a child, his mother Thetis had dipped him in the River Styx, the main river in the underworld, making him invulnerable all over – except for the part of the heel that she was holding him on. This became his fatal flaw, his weak spot, and he was eventually killed when the Trojan prince Paris shot an arrow into his vulnerable spot – his heel.

Now when we talk about something being someone’s Achilles heel (notice that there’s no possessive apostrophe, by the way), we mean it’s a small problem or weakness they have that could lead to disaster of some kind. Here are some more examples:

My daughter’s doing OK at school, but Maths is still a bit of an Achilles heel.

The Achilles heel of the case for nuclear power remains the issue of the disposal of waste.

She was a pretty decent boss, but her Achilles heel was the fact she couldn’t really delegate.

Crimea is clearly Russia’s Achilles heel and remains very vulnerable to Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

It’s disgusting that the Achilles heel of Congress now is the Republican Party.

Another famous character from Greek mythology is Hercules – son of the god Zeus by a human mother. He’s famous for his superhuman strength and his many adventures. After the goddess Hera made him temporarily insane, leading him to kill his wife and children, he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance and was told he’d need to spend the next twelve years performing twelve enormously difficult tasks. These became known as the Labours of Hercules, and they included descending into the underworld to bring back Cerberus the terrifying dog that guarded its entrance to destroying the many-headed monster called the Hydra.

As a result, any job or task that’s extremely difficult or calls for enormous strength is sometimes called Herculean. Most commonly we talk about Herculean effort and Herculean tasks – and the stress is on the third of the four syllables: Her-cu-LE-an. Here are some everyday examples:

When I had Covid, I felt feel so weak that even getting out of bed was a Herculean effort.

She’s facing the Herculean task of bringing up four kids all by herself.

The country has a Herculean challenge ahead as thousands of refugees pour over its border.

Stripping away the layers of money laundering schemes is a Herculean task.

The fact she managed to turn the company around and save it from going under is a Herculean feat.

You may be familiar with the story of King Midas – a man who lived in great luxury and yet who always wanted more. When he did Dionyssus – the god of celebration – a favour, he was granted a wish and decided that he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold, as gold brought him the greatest happiness . . . or so he thought.

It’s ironic given what then happened to King Midas (spoiler alert: it didn’t end well as he turned his beloved daughter to gold), that the phrase the Midas touch has such positive connotations. If you say that someone has the Midas touch, you mean they’re financially successful in whatever they do – whatever they turn their hand to ends up making them money. There’s no suggestion that this might lead to disaster or end up with anyone having to learn a moral lesson about the dangers of greed, repent and then beg for the gift to be removed. Here are some more examples:

Charles Saatchi seems to have lost his Midas touch.

Oprah Winfrey has the Midas touch and has been able to find success in movies, TV and literary works.

Marvel clearly thought they just had the Midas touch and didn’t need to try. That’s the only way I can explain how awful this film really is!

His Midas touch has given the company an annual turnover that’s expected to reach £4 million.

The phrase is also used just to mean something like ‘making things as good as possible’, so you see things like this:

Serve and, for the Midas touch, drizzle each portion with truffle oil. 

He’s an incredible golfer. He just seems to have the Midas touch at the moment.

However, just as you can lose your Midas touch, so too can you possess a reverse Midas touch – or be like King Midas in reverse: everything you touch turns to shit! This explains examples like these:

Trump’s reverse Midas touch is making everything he hates popular.

Obama was blessed with a reverse Midas touch. Whatever he touched turned into chaos.

Queen Midas in reverse strikes again. Everything Kate Forbes touches turns to dust.

Finally for today, we come to Odysseus, the wise and courageous king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. After the Trojan War, Odysseus was forced to spend ten years wandering the world before finally managing to make it back home. The story inspired one of my very favourite poems, and also gives us the word odyssey – with the stress on the first syllable.

For most people, the most immediate association with the word is probably the Stanley Kubrick classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and if we talk about someone’s odyssey or someone going on an odyssey, it means a long trip or period of time that involves a lot of different exciting activities, and it’s particularly used to talk about people who are searching for something, so we talk about spiritual odysseys and personal odysseys. Look at these examples:

The film follows one man’s odyssey to find the mother he was separated from at birth.

I think in lots of ways the book represents a bit of a personal odyssey for the writer.

Later in his life, he left the party he’d given so much to and went on something of a political odyssey.

My trip to Mecca to do my Hajj was very much a spiritual odyssey for me personally.

Right. That’s probably enough for one day. Look forward to any comments or questions – and if you have any other ideas on words derived from the stories of the Ancient Greeks, feel free to share them here.

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4 Responses

  1. Natalie says:

    Love the collocations taken directly from Greek myths. I’ve noticed one needs to be quite fluent in the myths themselves too to fully understand and appreciate what the other person means if they use them in a sentence.

    My personal favourite is: “in the arms of Morpheus”. Morpheus, the god of dreams as per Greek mythology, was the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep.

    The expression simply means you’re asleep, or … in the state of being completely forgotten, sadly.

    One hilarious reference (mentioned by Mark Jones on Quora about 6 years ago) was in a Victorian era guide for women, which suggested in its chapter entitled Insomnia if you had trouble getting into the arms of Morpheus, i.e. getting asleep, put yourself in the arms of a husband. Or eat onions.

    I was so tired after work today that when I got home I let myself fall straight in the arms of Morpheus.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      I think it really depends on the expressions / idioms. I mean, the ones I’ve gone for here are widely used and understood even by those who have no real knowledge of the actual myths themselves.Faiiling into the arms of Morpheus is much more of a creative one-off usage that does rely on broader knowledge. Thanks for sharing the example.

  2. Andrew Wright says:

    Hugh, thank you for so many things. In this article I have enjoyed seeing your choices and reading your thought about them. Very much my cup of tea.

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