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The face that launched a thousand quips

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Helen Bowden-White

Helen of Troy was immortalised as the face that launched a thousand ships. Now Helen of New York is rapidly gaining world fame as the face that launched a thousand quips. What's more, she has inspired a new word: Helenism (not to be confused with Hellenism with two Ls). It's not yet in the dictionaries, but Google has found 11,700 references to it.

Steve White

Computer guru Steve R. White (54), of New York City, the genius who played a major role in turning IBM AntiVirus into a multi-million dollar business, has gathered hundreds of Helenisms over the years, and lists them on his entertaining Stuff About Stuff website.

After chuckling over many of these delightfully mixed metaphors, we asked Steve why he called them Helenisms. He replied:

"Helenism" is a word that I coined to describe the wonderful phrases that my lovely wife, Helen M. Bowden-White, says spontaneously. After a while, I noticed that people said them all the time, and started collecting them. I have since enlisted a number of my friends, as well as readers of my weblog, into collecting them.

I am pretty strict in collecting only spontaneous Helenisms (not those that are made up), and only those that have two constituent phrases that, when combined, have a clear (if odd) meaning.

Helen has a wonderful mind (in many ways!). One of its many talents is the spontaneous creation of Helenisms. Like Spoonerisms and Tom Swifties before them, Helenisms are their own aphorismic genre, with precise properties:

  • The phrase must be built of two well-known aphorisms or phrases, and these should usually be related in structure or meaning.
  • The phrase itself must be meaningful, and its meaning must be clear despite being an odd amalgam of its two constituent phrases.

The result is something that might well just pass by in conversation, as you understand its intended meaning as it is said. Upon closer examination, though, it is a marvel of recombinant linguistics.

Here's an example:

Big man on the totem pole.

  • Big man on campus.
  • Low man on the totem pole.

See? Simple. Comprehensible. Listen to conversations around you. You'll hear them! And when you do, tell us.

Helen has sent us this list of "genuine Helenisms"

Wake up and fly right

  • Wake up and smell the coffee
  • Straighten up and fly right

We'll burn that bridge when we come to it
[Steve's comment: "That's a sentiment often expressed in business but seldom said that precisely."]

  • We'll cross that bridge when we come to it
  • Burning your bridges

Half of one, six dozen of the other

  • Six of one, a half dozen of the other

No skin off their teeth

  • No skin off their nose
  • By the skin of their teeth

She's a piece of art.

  • She's a piece of work
  • She's a work of art.

Milk stop

  • Milk run
  • Pit stop

That's water over the bridge

  • That's water over the dam
  • That's water under the bridge

Keep your ear to the grindstone

  • Keep your ear to the ground
  • Keep your nose to the grindstone

You're a cheap thrill

  • You're a cheap date
  • It's a cheap thrill

Baby pie

  • Baby doll
  • Cutie pie

All our ducks are lined up

  • All our ducks are in a row
  • It's all lined up

I was just thinking to myself

  • I was just talking to myself
  • I was just thinking aloud.

Happy as pie

  • Happy as a clam
  • Sweet as pie

Get my ass together

  • Get my ass in gear
  • Get my act together

We're dead dog tired.

  • We're dead tired.
  • We're dog tired.

Although we couldn't find the word Helenism in any hardback dictionary we did find this cynical definition in an Urban Slang Dictionary forum:

Helenism appeals to poor people because they are too stupid to understand highly interlectual (sic) conversations, and so appeals to their most base instinct by handing them lollies and showing them pretty pictures of puppies in rose gardens.

We prefer this quotation about Helen of Troy, from Christopher Marlowe's classic play, Doctor Faustus, written c.1592:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!


Story first posted August 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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