Allusion in Literature – Famous Literary Allusions & References

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

Who says that we don't use 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 original sources, and how popular the terms are according to Google.


#1: Catch-22

  • Reference: "The Rohingya Exodus: Is Malaysia In A Catch-22 Situation?", Forbes, Jan. 23, 2017
  • Definition: A problem that's unsolvable due to contradictory rules.
  • Origin: Title of Joseph Heller's satirical and historical novel (1961).

34,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#2: Trojan Horse Trojan Horse

  • Reference: "'Trojan Horse' teachers cleared of professional misconduct after government lawyers admit errors in the case," The Independent, May 31, 2017
  • 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.

125,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


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

  • Reference: "The Year In Corporate Sustainability: The Best Of Times And The Worst Of Times," Forbes, Dec. 18, 2017
  • Definition: A reference to contradictions inherent in society.
  • Original: From Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

4,900 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#4: What a tangled web we weave

  • Reference: "What a Tangled Web We Weave," New York Times, Jan. 2, 2017
  • 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!"

4,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#5: All the world's a stage

  • Reference: "The World's A Stage: British Rock Star Tim Burgess On Touring And Travel Tips," The Nation, Jul. 22, 2017
  • 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" from infancy to old age.

34,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#6: Big Brother is watching

  • Reference: "Big Brother is watching … but is anyone watching Big Brother?", The Guardian, May 25, 2017
  • 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.

9,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#7: Winter of our discontent

  • Reference: "We’ve Been Here Before: Jon Meacham on the Literature of Our Discontent," New York Times, Jan. 17, 2017
  • 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.

4,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#8: Tilting at windmills

  • Reference: "New York To Close Indian Point, Tilt At Windmills And Burn More Oil," Forbes, Jan. 9, 2017
  • 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.

14,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


Sisyphean Task#9 Herculean task

  • Reference: "Porto face Herculean task away to Juventus," Reuters, Mar. 12, 2017
  • 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. The Greek hero Hercules was given 12 tasks to perform (the 12 Labors of Hercules), each more impossible than the one that came before.

4,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


#10: Sisyphean task

  • Reference: "Uhuru Kenyatta’s self-created Sisyphean Task of “healing and uniting” a Divided Kenya," Huffington Post, Dec. 1, 2017
  • Definition: An endless and fruitless chore.
  • Origin: Date unknown. In Greek mythology, Zeus punished 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 again, only to lose it every time, continuing this cycle for all eternity.

7,000 average monthly searches globally (Google)


Other Sources:

Library of Congress