The face that launched a thousand quips
SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia
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.
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
- 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,
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.
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
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
Copyright © 2006