Recently, I stumbled across Dorothy Rose Blumberg’s Whose What?, a book of “the American Language’s” strangest possessive axioms, like “Adam’s Apple” and “Achilles’ Heel.” Most were familiar, but some were both so strange and grand that I could only hear them being declared in Ron Burgundy’s voice (enjoy a collection of Ron’s unique expletives here). So, if you’re looking for the perfect old-fashioned curse or analogy, try some of these.
1. Expression: “Balaam’s Ass!”
Refers to: Stupidly ignoring warning signs. It comes from a Biblical story of a prophet who was sent to curse his King’s enemies, the Israelites. He rode his faithful donkey toward the Israelites until an angel appeared on the road. Only the donkey could see the angel, so she veered into a field. Balaam beat her until she was back on the road. Further down, again the angel appeared, again the ass moved aside, and was again harshly beaten. The third time the angel appeared he blocked the road entirely so they couldn’t pass. The donkey lay down in the road while Balaam beat her mercilessly. At that point the donkey looked up and asked him, “Why are you beating me? Haven’t I been a good donkey?” When Balaam agreed, yes she had, he could suddenly see the fearsome angel standing before him, sword in hand. The angel told him to proceed, and Balaam went and showered blessings upon Israel instead of curses. (Interesting note: In the entirety of the Bible, the only other time an animal spoke was Satan disguised as a serpent in the Garden of Eden).
Sample Usage: To declare your frustration when your wisdom isn’t heeded. “See! I told you the manager had fixed the surveillance camera outside the supply closet! Who am I, Balaam’s Ass over here??”
2. Expression: “Cleopatra’s War Trumpets!”
Refers to: Dangerous uselessness. Apparently, Cleopatra sent her men to the bloody battle of Actium armed with Egyptian sistrum. A sistrum is a large religious rattle—basically, a fancy stick with bells on it. When shaken, it was supposed to scare off evil spirits. “War Trumpets” were a derisive reference. No one can say whether or not they managed to ward off evil, but Egypt lost that battle, allowing Rome to become the greatest nation in the world, unopposed.
Sample Usage: Refusing to take part in any of your cousin’s ballistics tests. “Reggie, your homemade Kevlar is as about as useful as Cleopatra’s War Trumpets.”
3. Expression: “Solomon’s Ring!”
Refers to: Mastery over nature. In the traditional Islamic story, Solomon was napping in a meadow and dreamed that eight angels gave him a jewel inscribed “God is Power and Greatness.” Solomon had the jewel set into a ring, and it gave him the power to understand all animals and to control all living things, all the forces of nature, and all that was supernatural as well.
Sample Usage: Straining to compliment your neighbor’s garden after deer broke down your chicken wire fence and ate five months of your careful cultivation and tender care. “Wow, Cynthia. Look at that garden! By Solomon’s Ring, there’s not even a single snail trail in there. How super for you.”
4. Expression: “Buridan’s Ass!”
Refers to: Suffering indecision. A 14th century French philosopher named Jean Buridan used the animal to represent a philosophical quandary. Hypothetically, the ass stood between two equally desirably bales of hay, unable to decide which one to eat. And then it starved to death because of its indecision.
Sample Usage: Taking 20 minutes to eventually settle for vanilla at Baskin Robbins, which you don’t even like. “Dangit. I’m such a Buridan’s Ass when it comes to ice cream.”
5. Expression: “Ariadne’s Thread!”
Refers to: Becoming un-lost. In Greek mythology, Athens was under obligation to send human sacrifices to Crete to be eaten by their Minotaur. Theseus, Athenian son of Poseidon, volunteered as a sacrifice. As soon as he got off the boat, Ariadne, the Greek princess, fell in love with him. She gave him a magic ball of golden thread which he used to find his way back out of the maze after killing the Minotaur. He escaped Athens with Ariadne in tow. The legend diverges there, but by most accounts he promptly ditched her on a beach, where the god Dionysus married her instead. So things pretty much evened out.
Sample Usage: Finding your car in the mall parking lot the night of December 23rd. “No Chad, I don’t remember what lot it’s in. I forgot my ball of Ariadne’s Thread when I grabbed my purse this morning.”
6. Expression: “Morton’s Fork!”
Refers to: Being trapped no matter which way you go. The expression refers to John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1491, servant to Henry VII. Henry was trying to restore the stability of the English monarchy by fighting The War of the Roses, and needed more money from his clergy to do it. (The clergy in question weren’t the impoverished monks and priests, but their wealthy bishops and cardinals). The clergy did not want to give away their money, so they took one of two approaches. Either they came in rags and said they were too poor to contribute, or they came in ridiculous finery saying they needed every penny to maintain the dignity of their position. Morton wasn’t having it. His “fork” led to a dead end, no matter which way you took. If you’re a high clergyman in rags, you’re obviously storing away all the money you extract from your underlings and beneficiaries. If you’re opulent, you’re obviously rich and can spare plenty of money for your King. Either way, hand it over.
Sample Usage: Reminding a teenager what staying home sick entails. “Morton’s Fork you’re going to play Xbox. If you’re well, you go to school, if you’re sick, you lay in bed. End of options.”
7. Expression: “Robin Hood’s Barn!”
Refers to: Taking forever to get to the point. Probably meant to call to mind the evil Sheriff of Nottingham chasing a merry Robin round and round in a fruitless effort to capture him.
Sample Usage: For the weekly board meeting that goes on 40 minutes longer than necessary. “We don’t need to keep going all around Robin Hood’s Barn here, people! Just tell Frank we all saw his internet history and that he’s fired!”
8. Expression: “Saint Wilfrid’s Needle!”
Refers to: A woman’s chastity. In the crypt of an ancient Saxon cathedral in Ripon, there is the tiniest of holes (needle) connecting the crypt to what was once the choir. It is said that a girl could prove her chastity if she were able to fit through St. Wilfrid’s Needle. (Which is logical in a way, as it appears to be impassible for anything wider than a whippet.)
Sample Usage: A classy way for women to disparage each other at parties. “I’d like to see her fit through Saint Wilfrid’s Needle.”