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ETYMOLOGY: HOIST ON ONE’S OWN PETARD

THERE APPEARS to be no shortage of Etymology for our Times words and phrases: To name a few, there are buffoon, charlatan, mendacity—and today’s “hoist on one’s own petard.”

What is a petard anyway? Shakespeare knew. I’m also reminded of a wonderful phrase en français, which we’ll get to anon.

According to Merriam-Webster, a petard is “a case containing an explosive to break down a door or breach a wall, a firework that explodes with a loud report.” Furthermore, petard “is almost always encountered in variations of the phrase hoist on one’s own petard, meaning ‘victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.’ ”

This and the following image from The Guardian, April 15, 2018.

Oh, I get it. Like Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Twitter posting of April 14, 2018, claiming “Last night the President put our adversaries on notice: when he draws a red line he enforces it.”

The accompanying photo shows Mike Pence on the president’s right, quite a feat because by that Friday night Pence was actually in Peru for the Summit of the Americas conference.

Post-petard: Sarah Huckabee Sanders fessed up on Sunday, April 15, that “The photo was taken Thursday in the Situation Room during Syria briefing.”

Sorry, Sarah; it’s too late. That petard has already gone off. Indeed, Trump and his cohorts seem to require an inexhaustible supply of them.

As proprietor of SimanaitisSays, I confess to hoisting myself from time to time.

By the way, there’s a misunderstanding, shared occasionally by editorial cartoonists, that a petard was some sort of spear or medieval pike. To the best of my research, it has always been a small bomb.

The English word petard comes from Middle French, the verb peter, “to break wind,” from the noun pet, an expulsion of intestinal gas. There’s a Latin equivalent, pedere, akin to the Greek πέρδομαι, pérdomai, all meaning “to break wind.”

Petard construction, as described in a seventeenth-century military manual.

The primary purpose of a petard was to blow up a door. Its crude construction and gunpowder explosive made it not unlikely to blow up the bomber instead. Hence, being hoist on one’s own petard.

M-W dates the English petard to 1566. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, says 1598. They agree on its definition, etymology, and that it didn’t take long before William Shakespeare picked up on a, for him, relatively new word.

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616. The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. National Portrait Gallery, London.

There’s a petard hoisting in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, c. 1602. Uncle Claudius (let’s all hiss and boo here!) gives Hamlet a sealed letter to be carried to the King of England. Hamlet sneaks a look and reads his own death warrant. He modifies the letter to have Claudius’s henchmen killed instead. Escaping back to Denmark, Hamlet says, “For ’tis the sport to have the enginer/ Hoist with his own petar and ’t shall go hard.”

It’s likely “petar” (fart) was a pun to entertain the Globe Theatre groundlings, not an errant spelling.

Groundlings paid only a penny for standing room immediately adjacent to the Globe’s projecting stage. They were notoriously raucous in their enjoyment of the performance.

Years ago, when I worked at the Society of Engineers, colleague Al Demmler and I encountered “hoist on his own petard” in something or other and decided to research its etymology. One related example was in French: Il ne vaut pas un pet de lapin.” “It’s not worth a rabbit fart.”

Image from cliparts101.com.

Al and I found ourselves in good company with William Shakespeare and laughed about it for that afternoon. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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