Trojan War Terms

Most of us are familiar with at least some military slang. We hear it on the news, or in movies, we served in the military at some point. But this week we present a look at some terms associated with a war from very long ago.

These terms are English words and phrases that are associated with the Trojan War, a mythic conflict immortalized in Homer’s two epics The Iliad and The Odyssey and in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Achilles’ heel, n, the only vulnerable spot. From the Greek warrior Achilles, who as an infant was dipped in the river Styx by his mother, the nymph Thetis, to protect him from harm, but she held him by the heel and that spot remained vulnerable. During the siege of Troy, Paris killed Achilles with an arrow to the heel. In figurative use in English since 1810. Also the Achilles’ tendon, name for the tendon in the heel, from 1900.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, c.phr., warning against those who give unexpected gifts, a reference to the Trojan Horse. From Virgil’s Aeneid:

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
(I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.)

Cassandra, n., a prophet who is not heeded. From Cassandra, the daughter of Trojan king Priam, who was gifted with prophecy by Apollo, but when she did not return his affections was also cursed in that no one would believe her. She foresaw the deception of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy, but no one heeded her warnings. In figurative use since before 1688.

Electra complex, n., psychological disorder where a woman has undue affection for her father and hostility toward her mother, the female version of an Oedipal complex. Coined by Jung in 1913 after Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who avenged her father’s death by arranging for the killing of her mother, who had killed Agamemnon.

Face that launched a thousand ships, c.phr., a reference to Helen and the number of ships the Greeks were said to have sent to avenge her kidnapping by Paris. From Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604):

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!

Hector, n. & v., a braggart or bully, to bully or intimidate. From Hector, the hero of Troy. In metaphorical use since 1655, after a London gang that had taken the name of the character.

Lotus-eater, n., one who surrenders to luxury and sloth. From the people encountered by Odysseus who ate Lotus flowers and thus drugged, forgot the cares of the world. In figurative use since 1847.

milli-Helen, n., unit of beauty capable of launching one ship. In jocular use.

odyssey, n., a long journey, a series of journeys. After Odysseus and the Homeric poem of that name that detailed Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home after the Trojan War, a journey that was a punishment of the gods for his conceiving of the idea for the Trojan Horse and the slaughter that followed.

Sinon, n., a liar. After the Greek warrior Sinon, who according to Virgil, was left behind by the Greeks to induce the Trojans to take the horse within the city walls. In figurative use since 1581.

Siren, n., an attractive woman, one who charms and deceives. From the mythological creatures, half bird, half woman, who lured sailors to their deaths on rocky shoals with their singing. Odysseus successfully sailed past the Sirens by plugging his sailors’ ears with wax, but had himself tied to the mast so he could hear their song. First used figuratively by Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors.

Trojan, n., a good companion, a merry fellow. Since 1600.

Trojan horse, n., a deception that entails a person or thing being accepted into confidence or possession and then subsequently betraying that trust, a computer program that is deliberately installed on a system but which contains hidden instructions that cause damage. From the deception used by the Greeks to penetrate the walls of Troy. In figurative use since 1600. Computer usage dates to 1981.

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