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Where’d that phrase come from #43

Created date

April 10th, 2012


When we refer to something as protean, we mean that it is always changing or evolving. It s one of the many words in the English language that derives from Greek mythology. Proteus was a sea deity who lived off the island of Pharos. According to myth, he was only vulnerable while he slept, so to avoid capture he would assume different shapes as disguises. The danger was constant and so were his changes; thus our usage of the word today. Because of the protean nature of Constitutional law, publishers release revised editions of their textbooks every year.


Today, the dunce cap is the quintessence of stupidity, but the name itself actually comes from a 13th-century Scottish educator named John Duns Scotus of Dunse, Scotland. Scotus s teachings were based on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception at a time when religion and education were not only closely tied but highly fractious. Scotus s followers were called Dunsers, a term which their opponents used to refer to stupid people and enemies of learning. Our current usage has been slightly altered to dunce. My grandfather used to tell me stories about how his teacher would make stupid and poorly behaved students sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap.

Peeping Tom

While our modern usage of the term peeping Tom requires no explanation, the origin of this word is less well known. The term comes from the old tale of Lady Godiva s ride through Coventry. As the story goes, Lady Godiva s husband a nobleman of Edward the Confessor agreed to remit one of his taxes if his wife rode naked through the streets of Coventry at noon. His wife accepted the challenge but ordered that the townspeople remain indoors with their blinds drawn. One denizen sneaked a peek; his name, Peeping Tom. The campus police sent a memo to students notifying them of the arrest of the peeping Tom that had been spotted outside of a university dormitory.


Here s another one from Greek mythology. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty and love. The girdle of Aphrodite, called the Cestus, was charmed. Anyone who owned it would be overcome by a preoccupation with sexuality. This is where we get the term aphrodisiac, which refers to anything that might arouse our passions whether it be champagne and perfume or chocolate and oysters. For years, experts have said that oysters are the ultimate aphrodisiac.