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.

The Evolution of Rewrites or, Can I have that conversation back please?


Forsooth! Toss that dog-eared word back to me and I’ll send back its better!

Commenders recommend, viewers review, tractors retract, and writers rewrite. It’s what we’ve always done. Somewhere out there are the perfect words to express the abstractions roaming our brains.
Between the rough draft and the final draft are more do-overs than Kardashian relationships.

This isn’t a new problem. With few exceptions, writers as a breed can’t leave well enough alone.

Cave Writer: “Ooga, hand me some charcoal. I’m changing this bull to a reindeer. It adds some vulnerability to the wall, don’t you think?”

Aesop: “I should have left it an elephant in donkey’s clothing. So satirical. But I had to revise it and now I’m out of papyrus. A wolf in sheep’s clothing! What was I thinking?”

Shakespeare: “‘A nose by any other name might as well bleat.’ No no no. Bring me another bit of parchment! ‘A nose by any other name could smell feet.’ Good, but not perfect. Rose! More parchment! Bless you dear Rose, you’re sweet. Say…”

Mark Twain:The Adventeres of Tom Sawyer. That doesn’t look right.” (Unrolls paper. Crumbles. Inserts fresh sheet. Rerolls.) “O.K. The Adventures of Yo, Saqyer. Blast these newfangled typewriters! Who put the letters in that order?”

Agatha Christie: “Dear Ms. Christie, Thank you for the submission of your most recent manuscript. The mystery is engaging and we are all stumped. Really stumped. When you whited out the name of the killer (Spelling error?) you neglected to re-type it. The entire office at our publishing company has placed wagers on the identity of the villain and we hope to hear from you before the Gaming Commission hears about us.”

Stephen King: #sickofwritinghorror #newstyle #rewrite #CookingwithCarrie

The Bright and Distant Future: “I can’t believe I said that. In front of all my friends. Awkward syntax, inane content, and way too many ‘uh’s.’ I’ll just recall that conversation, erase it from my friends’ memories, and substitute deep, cleverly worded, effortless sentences”

Writers know the clean joy of the rewrite. The pleasure of taking not-quite-right words and replacing them with choice tidbits of wisdom, perfectly balanced alliteration and assonance, and deft bits of punctuation.

Writers, at least this writer, are less impressive in face-to-face conversation. We grasp for words, mutter cliches, and embarrass ourselves with injudicious, frivolous, tedious pronouncements.

We want the power of the re-articulation. The super power that would allow us to recall every insipid word, replace it with the synonym of choice and no one would be the wiser.
I look forward to the day, friends.
We can dream, and anticipate.
We long for the era of a word fitly spoken.

Until then, this particular writer could try to speak less, listen more and hope against hope that conversation-mates will allot an extra measure of grace to season my plethora of rough draft words.

Lily-Livered Literary Devices

Real life wreaks havoc with perfectly good literary devices.
In the hands of professionals, these devices make the world of literature a finer place.
When rank amateurs throw them around, the term ‘verbal abuse’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The simile, saying something is like something else, requires an imaginative mind and clarity of expression:
He uttered a sound much like a bull dog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated. (PG Wodehouse)
Let an American teens get hold of it and the simile turns into:
‘I was like, just standing there and he, like, winked at me and I, like, died!’

When Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “I like humanity, but I loathe persons.” she was brilliantly employing an oxymoron.
When we speak of government intelligence or peacekeeping force or media integrity or red licorice we just use one word in the phrase to cancel out the other.

Anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to animals (sometimes interchangeable with personification) raises our consciousness with totalitarian critters in ‘Animal Farm’ or raises an entire generation of anti-hunting protestors with ‘Bambi.’
Now, commercials try to work up sympathy for lonely cleaning products pining for love in attics. Movies like ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Brave Little Toaster’ convince us that we can’t throw out broken plastic playthings or obsolete appliances because they have feelings too. That just raises my blood pressure.

Euphemisms. Ah. A way to take something prosaic, unpleasant or distressing and make it palatable.
Lucy wasn’t pregnant in ‘I Love Lucy.’ She was expecting. Sometimes women in the 1950’s were in the family way or on the nest or visited by the stork but they were NEVER pregnant.
‘The Godfather’ movies made threatening the life of another sound positively appealing by ‘making someone an offer they can’t refuse.’
See how clever these euphemisms are?
Compare them to the politician who has lied, cheated and stolen. Will he admit to lying, cheating etc? No. He will admit that ‘mistakes were made.’
Collateral damage, friendly fire and enhanced interrogation all have a pleasant ring to them.
Someone had the bright idea to call  taxes ‘revenue enhancements.’
See how clever those euphemisms are?

Portmanteau is that fun little device that joins 2 words to make a new word. Lewis Carroll combined ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’ to make the great word slithy in Jabberwocky. Smog? I can handle that. Motel? Very clever. How can human beings who come up with a delight called brunch also have infomercials and Brangelina and TomKat?

Invective. If you have ever read the comment section on YouTube videos, blogs, opinion columns,  etc., you’ve probably run across invective. Invective is that nasty, spiteful, lewd, venom-dripping-from-each-word sort of response Internet trolls like to use. Like real trolls, these scourges of social media have a limited vocabulary and use the same 4 letter words over and over and over.
Compare invective in the hands of a master. Shakespeare’s King Lear addresses his faithless daughter’s servant as such: “A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni’st the least syllable of thy addition.”(William Shakespeare “King Lear”, II.2)
Maybe when Internet trolls start using words like ‘ beggardly’ and ‘lily-livered’ and ‘filthy worsted-stocking knave’ we can take them more seriously.