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Our 13th page is devoted to superstition, bad luck, disasters, and other literary misfortunes as they relate to English culture, English expressions, and English language usage


The Curse of Macbeth

Theatrical tradition holds that uttering the word "Macbeth" anywhere inside a playhouse other than on the stage will bring dire misfortune on all within earshot. There are also some bizarre remedies, which include spinning around and shouting quotations from the Bard. History tells us that Macbeth was a Scottish king from 1040 to 1057, and ascended the throne upon the death of his uncle, Duncan. Shakespeare wove these facts into a supernatural murder story where Macbeth suffers a violent death (but this is not uncommon in the Bard's canon), and the play itself does not contain a grounding reference to why it would be unlucky.

Theatrical folklore has it that the "cure" for saying "Macbeth" inside of a playhouse is to step outside of the playhouse, turn three times uttering a profanity, and then requesting permission to return to the premises.


Custer's last stand

General George Armstrong Custer led a small cavalry force into Montana in June 1876. In his zeal to locate and engage the Sioux, he split his force into three columns. His column encountered a massive encampment of Sioux at the Little Big Horn. They managed to reach a hill called "Greasy Grass", where Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses in order to provide cover. In the ensuing battle, Custer and his entire column were killed. "Custer's last stand" can be used in English to refer to any poorly planned effort or campaign which results in disaster.


The Ides of March

Tradition has it that the Roman senate met at Rome's Curia Pompeii on the "Ides of March" 44 BCE, and assassinated Julius Caesar at the entrance. Caesar was warned of the conspiracy by a "soothsayer" who advised him that he would be in grave danger until the "Ides of March" had passed. In English, "The Ides of March" or "Beware the Ides of March" can be used to refer to impending danger.

The "Ides" occurs on the 15 of March, May, July, and October, and on the 13th of the other months. As an interesting side-note, we cannot find evidence that there is a singular form of "Ides"...



"He met his Waterloo". This refers to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 by the Allied forces led by Wellington. Many historians agree that the battle was lost due to a compounding of numerous tactical errors.

The battle began at 11:00 AM with a diversionary assault on the Chateau of Hougomont, which was successfully held by the Cold Stream Guards. Enraged, Jerome Bonaparte ordered more and more forces committed to the chateau until his entire corps was involved, or roughly 25% of Napoleon's infantry. When the infantry was needed for the full assault, Jerome's corps was depleted and unable to assist.

Roughly an hour after the assault on Hougomont was mounted, the second corps was sent forward to crush Wellington's left flank. This should have been an easy task, as Wellington had little defences on his left flank. For reasons that still remain shrouded in mystery, the advancing French column was ordered to execute a strange flanking maneuver, which enabled the Inniskilling Regiment to deliver a devastating enfilade. The French advance was routed, and they ran headlong from the field with the Scots Greys Cavalry in hot pursuit. The remainder of the battle is filled with similar such disasterous tactics.

"Waterloo" is used in English to signify a devastating and utter defeat.

Wellington's citations following the battle "It was a near run thing", and "By God, I don't think we would have done it if I wasn't here" have also enjoyed popularity.

As an interesting side-note, after Napoleon quit the field, his "Old Guard" formed a battle square to cover his retreat. Two French soldiers who rallied in the much-revered "Last Square of the Old Guard" are notable to English language lovers. The first was (reportedly) Nicolas Chauvin, whose name later appears in our language as "chauvinist". The other was Brigadier General Cambronne (later immortalised by Victor Hugo), who bequethed what is called "le mot a Cambronne", a catch-word of glorious defiance against insurmountable odds (cf "nuts").

And of course "Old Guard" is used in English to refer to a "group of established prestige and influence."

As a literary figure in his own right, Napoleon has appeared in works by Coleridge, Southey, Landor, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, and Hazlitt.

And finally, while some etymologists have hinted that "Waterloo" is the source of the English word "loo" ("water closet" becoming "Waterloo" becoming "loo"), such theories have not gained acceptance.


"Armageddon" has been used frequently in Egnlish in reference to a massive nuclear war where much of the earth is destroyed. Armageddon comes from the Hebrew "Hill of Megiddo", so named for the village of Megiddo in ancient Palestine.


During the Punic Wars, Hannibal's army (estimated at 20,000) encountered four Roman legions (approximately 80,000) at the Italian town of Cannae. Although severely outnumbered, Hannibal used a maneuver called a "double envelopment", his center retreated from the advancing Romans while his flanks encircled them. The Romans were completely surrounded and lost an estimated 55,000 men.

"Cannae" has been used in English to refer to any astonishing defeat brought about by superior tactics.


"Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" (GJV)

The unsinkable RMS Titanic left Southampton enroute to New York on April 10th 1912. Shortly before midnight on April 14th, the ship collided with an iceberg which pierced its hull. About two hours later, the ship sank. The story goes that as the ship was sinking, the band played "Nearer My God to Thee" on the deck, and that a number of passengers either played cards or exercised in the ship's gymnasium.

"To arrange deck chairs on the Titanic", or "To rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic" is used in English to mean a futile or pointless activity.

The "Titanic Clause" is sometimes used in insurance to refer to the simultaneous deaths of a husband and wife in a disaster.

"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" was among the survivors.

"Titanic" comes from "Titan", which comes from ancient mythology as the elder brother of Kronos, who founded a family of gigantic gods.


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"A bad hair day"

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Unlucky 13

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Calamity Jane

"Calamity Jane" was born Marthy Cannary (Martha Jane Cannary or Martha Canary) and her autobiography states that acquired her nickname after an ambush in Wyoming. She also claims to have served under Custer as a scout during his ill-fated campaign in Montana, to have captured the outlaw Jack McCall single-handedly, and to have had a love affair with Wild Bill Hickok. Few of the claims in her autobiography, however, can be substantiated. She died in 1903 and is buried in the Deadwood Cemetery next to Wild Bill Hickok's grave.

"Calamity Jane" can be used to refer to a person who appears to bring bad luck or foretells of disasters.

"Calamity" comes from the Latin "calamitus" and appears to have an etymological relationship to "calamus", straw or reed. In this sense it would refer to damaged crops.


"On the fritz"

"On the fritz" can be used to describe something that is out of order or defective.

Although "Fritz" (taken from Fredrick the Great of Prussia) has been used as a generic word for German soldier since 1883, there is scant etymological evidence to associate this term with "on the fritz". Partridge, on the other hand, attributes the term to "Fritzer", and associates it with cheap German exports in the early 20th century. "Fritzy" was also used in the early 20th century to describe a beggar who feigned epileptic fits in order to evoke sympathy.





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