Book References From School? It's All Greek to Me

Who says that we don't use most of what we learn in school? Daily conversation and the media are riddled with literary expressions from books we read between the ages of 14 and 22. What does it mean when someone is "tilting at windmills"? Have you ever felt like "Big Brother is watching" or that you're in a "Catch-22"? Where do these expressions come from and what do they mean?

These allusions give our speech a pulse by eliciting feelings and imagery beyond the literal meaning of the words. Here is a guide to some useful literary phrases ranging from popular clichés to more obscure references. See how they're currently being used in contemporary publications, whether you can cite the sources, and how popular the terms are according to Google.


#1: Catch-22

Reference: "Is Teaching Collaboration The Catch-22 Of Education?" Forbes, Oct. 1, 2012

Definition: a problem that's unsolvable due to contradictory rules.

Origin: Title of Joseph Heller's satirical and historical novel (1961).

246,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#2: Trojan Horse Trojan Horse

Reference: "Is police candidate a Trojan horse for right-wing American think-tank?”, The Independent, Oct. 22, 2012

Definition: a trick often presented as a gift that is meant to destroy from within a safe space.

Origin: From Virgil's Aeneid (between 29 and 19 BC). The Greeks tricked the Trojans into opening their gates during wartime by offering them a gift of a wooden horse. The Trojan Horse was full of Greek soldiers who slaughtered their opponents.

246,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#3: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Reference: "The Pushcart Prize Anthology Reflects the Best and Worst of times", LA Times, November 9, 2012

Definition: a reference to contradictions inherent in society.

Original: From Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

40,500 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#4: What a tangled web

Reference: "What a Tangled Web," New York Times, July 13, 2012

Definition: this describes the complications that arise from deception.

Original: From Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field by Sir Walter Scott (1808). Actual text: "O, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!"

33,100 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#5: All the world's a stage

Reference: "All the (Political) World's a Stage," The Nation, Nov. 5, 2012

Definition: life follows familiar, predictable patterns

Origin: In William Shakespeare's As You Like It (1623), these opening lines from a monologue compare people's lives to plays, with various "acts" or stages from infancy to old age.

33,100 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#6: Big Brother is watching

Reference: "Contextual Intelligence: Smart Phones To Become Big Brother?", Information Week, Oct. 22, 2012

Definition: a symbol of absolute power that is always monitoring people's behavior

Origin: In 1984, George Orwell's dystopian novel published in 1949, Big Brother is the personification of the power of the state.

22,200 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#7: Winter of our discontent

Reference: "Winter of our discontent: Facts absent from the election," Georgetown Voice, October 17, 2012

Definition: a time of unhappiness is shortly coming to an end

Origin: The opening line of William Shakespeare's Richard III (1591). Richard is expressing jealousy that his brother Edward IV is king and sets in motion a plan to ascend to the throne.

14,800 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#8: Tilting at windmills

Reference: "China's state capitalism: Not just tilting at windmills," The Economist, Oct. 6, 2012

Definition: attacking enemies that are imaginary

Origin: Don Quixote, the main character of Miguel Cervantes' classic novel (1605), attacks windmills that he believes to be giants.

6,600 average monthly searches globally (Google)


Sisyphean Task#9 Herculean task

Reference: "Merkel says closer integration ‘Herculean task’", Reuters, June 14, 2012

Definition: Named after the legendary hero, Hercules, this implies a task of extraordinary difficulty

Origin: First known use was in 1513, but the term derives from Ancient Greek mythology.

2,400 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#10: Sisyphean task

Reference: "Earning the trust of Americans is proving a Sisyphean task for Huawei." in "China's telco   suppliers can't escape spying row”, Reuters, Oct. 8, 2012

Definition: an endless and fruitless chore

Origin: Date unknown. In Greek mythology, Zeus punishes King Sisyphus for excessive pride by making him roll a large boulder up a hill only to have it come down. He must roll it up the hill again and continue this cycle for all eternity.

1,300 average monthly searches globally (Google)


Other Sources:


Library of Congress



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