Idioms from Greek Mythology

Greek idioms and phrases

Notable Greek figures—from philosophers to mathematicians and scientists— helped shape the world we know today so it is no surprised that they enriched our vocabulary as well. From words like democracy, library, to the modern alphabet, and many idioms and expressions, the Greeks gave us a lot. Ancient fables also spawned innumerable expressions that we still use today.Here are some idioms from Greek mythology you’ll hear quite frequently in English.

Achilles’ Heel: an individual’s weak spot
From the myth of Achilles, who was dipped in the River Styx in infancy to make him invincible. Only the part by which his mother held him – his heel – was untouched by the river water, and it was only here he could be wounded.

Adonis: a gorgeous man

Adonis was a young mortal man who was so handsome that the goddesses Aphrodite and Persephone fought over who would have him. When he died in Aphrodite’s arms, her tears and his blood mingled to become the anemone flower.

Amazonian: describing a strong woman
The Amazons were a tribe of warrior women; the daughters of Ares (god of war) and Harmonia (goddess of harmony).

Apple of Discord: An apple of discord is the core, kernel, or crux of an argument, or a small matter that could lead to a bigger dispute.

A Trojan Horse: a hollow wooden statue of a horse in which the Greeks concealed themselves in order to enter Troy.

(2) A person or thing intended secretly to undermine or bring about the downfall of an enemy or opponent.”the rebels may use this peace accord as a Trojan horse to try and take over”

(3) Computing: a program designed to breach the security of a computer system while ostensibly performing some innocuous function.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: If someone is stuck between a rock and a hard place, they have a very difficult decision to make.

The idiom comes from the myth of Odysseus, who while sailing home from the Trojan War had to sail between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a sea monster who lived on a cliff and would eat sailors who passed by her, and Charybdis was a large whirlpool near Scylla’s cliff that would destroy (ruin, take apart), any ship that sailed too close. Odysseus had to figure out how to get past Scylla without getting his ship destroyed by Charybdis, and was, therefore, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Chaotic: disorderly

According to the poet Ovid, Chaos was what existed before the gods were created, a ‘gap’ created by the splitting of heaven and hell. Chaos was a primordial god, along with Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (hell).

Chronology: a list of events in order

Derived from Cronos, the god of time.

Man’s best friend – the dog

From the story of Odysseus, who returned home from his long quest to find his dog had held on to life just long enough to see his master one last time.

Echo: the repetition of sound

Echo was a mountain nymph who loved to talk and talk – until Hera cursed her so that all she could do was repeat others’ words. When she died, her voice was left behind, as the echo.

Elysian Fields: a place or position to be aspired to. the place at the ends of the earth to which certain favored heroes were conveyed by the gods after death.

Fate: the course of events as determined by a higher power

The Fates were three sisters who spun the thread of life. Lachesis decided the length of each person’s thread, Clotho spun it and Atropos severed it when she decided that the time had come. No one could alter their work.

Food/nectar of the gods: the most delicious of tastes

The gods lived on nectar and ambrosia. The latter could make a human immortal.

Fury: intense anger

The Furies were ancient deities who acted as judge, jury and executioner, hearing cases against mortals and exacting bloody and painful vengeance for crimes. They were incredibly ugly: snakes for hair, bat wings and black skin.

Giant/titan: very large entity

The Giants were the offspring of Gaia – the name means ‘of the earth’. They are often confused with the Titans, who were the children of Gaia and Uranus (the sky god). The Titans preceded the Olympian gods (Zeus and co.), who would overthrow them to take control of the world. Our modern terms ‘giant’ and ‘titan’ relate to the power of these gods rather than their actual size.

Harp on: to talk on and on tediously

The Harpies were horrid winged creatures, half-woman and half-bird, who tormented King Phineus. They feature in a story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Herculean effort: an impressive try

Relating to Hercules (in fact spelled Heracles in Ancient Greek), who carried out twelve difficult labours on his heroic quest.

Hypnosis: a state of consciousness in which a person can receive suggestions

Hypnos was the personification of sleep. He lived in a dark, silent cave, and was seen to be a kind and gentle god.

No stone unturned: search all over

A quotation from a play by Euripedes. Eurystheus tells his men to leave no stone unturned in their hunt for Hercules’s sons.

Labyrinth: an intricate maze 

From the myth of King Minos and the Minotaur. Minos had the master craftsman Daedalus build the Labyrinth to contain the beast. Theseus eventually navigated the maze and slayed the Minotaur.

Mentor: an experienced guide

Derived from the stories of Athena, goddess of wisdom. She disguised herself as a man named Mentor in order to guide Odysseus’s son.

Midas Touch: describes a person who has good fortune

From the story of King Midas, who wished that all he touched would turn to gold.

Narcissistic: describing a person who loves him-/herself

Narcissus was half-nymph, half-god and all beauty. His vanity was his downfall; when he saw his reflection in a pool of water, he could not tear his eyes away – and he starved to death.

Nemesis: an adversary
From the goddess Nemesis, who was in charge of doling out divine retribution to any mortal guilty of hubris.

Odyssey: a great journey

From the epic poem by Homer that tells of Odysseus’s long, adventure-filled journey home from the Trojan War.

Pandora’s Box: something that, if unleashed, will cause trouble

Pandora was the first mortal woman. She had one instruction from Zeus: don’t open the jar (now known as a box) he gave her. Of course she did – and in doing so released all the evil we now have in the world.

Phobia: a deep-seated fear and aversion

From Phobos, the god of fear. He was the son of Aphrodite (love) and Ares (war), and the twin brother of Deimos (terror).

Siren Song: used in reference to the appeal of something that is alluring but also potentially harmful or dangerous.

Sour Grapes: If someone has sour grapes, they’re jealous of something or didn’t get something that they wanted.

This idiom from Greek mythology comes from Aesop’s fable “Fox and the Grapes.” In this fable, a fox sees some delicious-looking grapes hanging high up in a tree, and tries everything he can to get to them. He fails, however, gives up, and walks away, consoling himself (making himself feel better) by saying that the grapes would’ve been sour anyway.

Touch Wood: a phrase you say when you don’t want to jinx (foreshadow, make it happen because you said it) something before it happens. It’s a bit superstitious, but a lot of people will touch, tap or knock on wood when they’re talking about something they hope doesn’t happen right after they have said it!

This phrase and tradition is very, very old, and comes from a good luck practice of the Ancient Greeks. They believed that nymphs and spirits lived in trees, and so the Greeks would touch trees to bring good luck.

Typhoon: a tropical cyclone

From Typhon, son of Gaia and Tartarus, the most terrible monster of Greek mythology; a huge serpentine creature.

Idioms found in Oxford Dictionary of Idioms and Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins

1. An Achilles Heel

2. Apple of Discord

3. Battle of Giants

4. Sow Dragon’s Teeth

5. A Golden Age

6. A Labor of Hercules

7. In the Lap of the Gods

8. The Shirt of Nessus

9. A Pandora’s Box

10. Pile Pelion on Ossa

11. A Procustean Bed

12. A Sop to Cerberus

13. A Trojan Horse

14. Midas Touch

15. Scylla and Charybdis

16. Cut the Gordian Knot

17. (Not) to Have a Clue

18. Halcyon Days

19. Judgment of Paris

20. Rise from the Ashes

21. Siren Song

22. Elysian Fields

Read about the oldest alphabet in the world here!

SOURCES

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). Myth. In Dictionary.Cambridge.com dictionary. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/myth

Davies, Mark. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): One billion million words, 1990–2019. Available online at https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/.

Encyclopædia Britannica. (2018, February 8). Midas: King of Phrygia. In Britannica.com. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Midas-king-of-Phrygia

Flavell, L., Flavell, R. (1994). Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins. Kyle Cathie Limited.

Hamilton, E. (1942). Mythology. Little, Brown and Company.

Jackson, H., Amvela, Z. E. (2000). Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An introduction to modern English lexicology. Continuum.

Kennedy, G. (1998). An Introduction to Corpus Linguistics. Harlow, Pearson Education Limited.

Liu, Dilin. (2003). The Most Frequently Used Spoken American English Idioms: A Corpus Analysis and Its Implications. Tesol Quarterly 37(4), 671–700.

Maicar. (n.d.). Basic Aspects of Greek Myths. Maicar.com. http://www.maicar.com/GML/BasicAspects.html

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Cassandra. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Cassandra

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Myth. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myth

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Pinsent, J. (1969). Greek Mythology. Hamlyn.

Provensen, A. (1959). Golden Treasury: Myths and Legends. Golden Press.

Siefring, J. (2004). Oxford Dictionary of Idioms. Oxford University Press.

Trikha, P. (2013). Antiquity Revisited: Tracing the Influence of Greek Mythology on English Literature and Culture. Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, 1(4), 78–84.

Widdowson, G. H. (2000). On the Limitations of Linguistics Applied. Applied Linguistics, 21(1), 3–25

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