Hoist with his own petard. How the Sam Hill?


Wile E Coyote Quotes image in Vector cliparts category at pixy.orgLife is full of surprises. I thought everyone knows what it means to be “hoist with your own petard.”
Not surprisingly, I was wrong.

If you don’t know the meaning, read on and expand your universe. If you do—well, you’ve read this far. Why not stick with me to the end?

A petard, according to my extensive research on Wikipedia AND two other sites whose names I can’t remember, is a small bomb you construct to blow something up.
To hoist something is to lift that something into the air.

The pithy little phrase is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet has two friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (Are those not the greatest names? I’m so jealous Shakespeare thought of them first.) Hamlet learns they are going to betray him by carrying a letter to the authorities requesting Hamlet be killed. Great names do not always great friends make.

When Hamlet finds the letter, he substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names for his own. Thereby writing their death sentence.
Then he chuckles that
“… ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar’(d)*

In other words, Hamlet considers it sporting when the one who engineered the bomb to blow up someone else gets lifted into the air when it explodes under him.

Sort of like Haman in the book of Esther, being hung on the gallows he built for Mordecai.
Or a poacher accidentally stepping into the trap he set for a rare white rhino.
Or Wile E. Coyote getting beaned by the anvil meant for the Road Runner.

So now you know how to be hoist and what a petard is. If I were you, I’d be asking ‘WHY?”
Why do I think you need to know this?

Because not everyone is familiar with this evocative and very descriptive phrase. Even literate, well-educated everyones haven’t heard it. Like some of my writing critique group. While reading aloud to them from my current WIP (Work in Progress for those of you with enough sense of self-preservation to never try your hand at authoring), I came to the “hoist, etc.” phrase. I’d written it in because it was JUST PERFECT for a scene where my antagonist got snared by his own evil devices. My fellow writers, with clearing of throats and furrowing of brows, asked what the Sam Hill “hoist with his own petard” meant. I sensed immediately that they were under-impressed.

But I kept the line in there anyway.

IF my WIP ever becomes a finished manuscript, and
IF it gets contracted and published, and
IF you happen to read it, you won’t need to contact me and ask what the Sam Hill I mean by sticking “hoist with his own petard” in there.
Because now you know.

It’s something writers like me and ol’ Billy Shakespeare throw around.

*The “d” is my addition. All this is confusing enough without dropping consonants.

15 thoughts on “Hoist with his own petard. How the Sam Hill?

  1. Wow, I definitely learned something new today! It’s been years since I’ve seen Hamlet and I guess that phrase went right over my head. Along with many others, I hate to say. You have definitely given me appreciation for this phrase! I think I’ll have to try it on somebody and get my own share of furrowed brows and throat clearing.

  2. After clearing my throat, I raise my hand to admit I was part of the group that said we don’t understand what you’re saying, Anita.

    But now, when your published piece is in my hands and I read the phrase, I’ll know exactly what you mean. Unless I happen to forget what I just learned. 🙂

  3. Perfect word for which character POV? And just what’s wrong with “snared by his own evil devices’?!!! Only one four-letter word longer than the original phrase in question! If you leave that bloody “petard” phrase in, you will hear me screaming NO! from across town. 😉

  4. I have long loved that phrase. And used it. I could not have told you it came from Hamlet. I probably would’ve been more likely to have learned it from Wile E. I wonder where I did learn it…? Anyway, I’ve often wished Star Trek Next Generation would find a way to use it as “hoist with his own Pickard.” Especially since Patrick Stewart, himself a classically trained British actor, would be familiar with the phrase. 😀 😉

  5. Part 2 of my comment: just as it is wise to leave some perfect words in children’s books, because it’s the RIGHT word even though they haven’t heard it before, I think it’s important to leave the right phrase or word in books for grown up people. We all of us need enriching.

    P.S. I’m sorry your tea kettle is still whistling! lolol

  6. My WIP is generously littered with phrases (and sometimes entire sentences) lifted from Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot, Blake, Rossetti, Wilde, Brontë, Frost, Tennyson, Austen, etc. My protagonist is a student at a liberal arts college in the 1970s, and such things were a common part of everyday conversation at liberal arts colleges in the 1970s, at least among English majors….

    Yeah, probably no one will read it.

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