Trivia 022: My popularity is blowing up

Ahhh, schadenfreude. Is there anything better than seeing someone overconfident in their success suddenly be crushed by their own hubris? To stand spectator and say “look at them, hoisted by their own petard”?

But that is a rather strange turn of phrase, isn’t it? It’s one of those sayings that seems to be rather common in English. Someone has beaten you at your own game, defeated you with your own weapon, hoisted you with your own…what? What exactly is a “petard”, anyways? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

As with many unique inventions of the English language, this phrase is first found in the works of William Shakespeare (along with over 1700 original words). It appears in Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet.

There’s letters sealed; and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work,
For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard; and ’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon. O, ’tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s friends, have been tasked with helping him travel to England. His mother, Queen Gertrude, has written a letter instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet. During the journey, however, Hamlet manages to edit the letter, changing it to say that the bearers of the letter (i.e. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) should be killed. They thus set off, unknowingly carrying the tool of their own demise. Near the end of the play, an ambassador from England reveals that they have been put to death, as instructed. (On a side note, I highly recommend Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a beautiful absurdist play by Tom Stoppard).

Thus, they have been “hoisted by their own petard”. Still, what exactly does that mean? Some clues can be found in the lines surrounding the phrase. Hamlet states that the one being “hoisted” is an “enginer (engineer)”, and that he shall “delve one yard below their mines / and blow them at the moon”. In this context, during the 16th century, an engineer was not only someone capable of building engines (hence the title), but also making bombs. Engineers and sappers were responsible for placing mines during combat operations, to help break into enemy fortifications. A petard, it turns out, is actually an explosive device. They were basically bell-shaped pieces of metal filled with gunpowder. They were essentially an early form of a shaped charge. Creating and fitting a petard was a very dangerous proposition, as explosives in the 16th century were not very reliable. Thus, there was always a chance that a bomb maker might be blown into the air (or worse) by their own explosion.

So there you have it. Yet another memorable metaphor from the Bard himself.

Footnote: according to Wikipedia “Pétard comes from the Middle French péter, to fart, from the root pet, expulsion of intestinal gas, derived from the Latin peditus, past participle of pedere, to break wind.” But I’m sure that none of my readers are so uncouth as to draw humor from that.

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