Columns > Published on March 27th, 2013

Nothing New Under The Sun: The Origins of 5 Common Literary Allusions


Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve read something before? Well, you have—maybe even hundreds or thousands of times. Writers are, at best, great mimics, and, at worst, sneaky thieves. They love to steal the words of the writers who have come before them. Did I say steal? I meant allude to the words of their fore-authors.  According to An Introduction to Poetry, 9th Edition, an allusion is

an indirect reference to any person, place, or thing—fictitious, historical, or actual.

Writers often use allusions in their writing to conjure up an idea without having to do a lot of explaining. Allusions to biblical stories or nautical jargon don’t warrant elucidation because they are part of a knowledge collective. If I say, for instance, “It’s raining so hard, I might need an Ark to get home,” I don’t then need to cite the biblical story of Noah, the flood, and the boat (Ark) he built to escape it because you probably already know the story and can easily infer my meaning. Even if you are not familiar with the original biblical version, you probably have heard mention of Arks being related to floods at some point in your life, and would therefore, know what I mean.

Allusion is a soft crime compared to the felony-level offense that is plagiarism. Plagiarism is a hot issue in our world today where concepts like “intellectual property” apply to, well, everything, and there are billions of dollars at stake. Consider Apple (and companies of their ilk) who guards even the dimensions of a new iPhone until the last possible moment. In the publishing industry, plagiarism is a very, very contentious issue—even though writers (and artists of all genres and media) borrow from their contemporaries. Is not mimicry the highest form of flattery? Is that why Samsung’s products look SO MUCH LIKE Apple’s products? There is a lot of grey area around what is plagiarism (stealing) and what is allusion (appreciation, homage, collective knowledge). I probably could write a book on that topic alone. Someone probably already has.

I may have already waded into a big pile of doo doo by even mentioning such things, but the point is, allusions to sayings, events, known literary works, etc. make up a significant portion of how we communicate with one another. Sometimes these allusions get used so much, they become part of our regular, everyday language, and we forget to what they originally alluded. Sometimes, those phrases come to mean something else entirely. As Anne Fadiman puts it in her essay “Nothing New Under the Sun” from her book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader:

One of the convenient things about pilfering someone else’s words is that you don’t have to worry about their original meaning.

In fact, the idea (and the title) for this article comes from Ms. Fadiman’s excellent book, which I read in college. Her essay on plagiarism and allusion stuck with me for over a decade. In it, she exposes the way in which creators (writers, artists, senators, and even chefs) steal from each other relentlessly but without malice. It’s a practice that is as natural as breathing. Even the phrase nothing new under the sun—which I have stolen from Ms. Fadiman and which originates in the Bible—is, well, nothing new.

Another excellent book that will make you think twice about the phrases you use every day is White Elephants and Red Herrings by Albert Jack. In it, he explains the origins of hundreds of sayings, idioms, and allusions to things long forgotten and/or obscured by time. I used his book to help me explain the origins of some of these sayings. I also consulted many websites (hyperlinked throughout the article), but one of the most helpful was World Wide Words, a website from Michael Quinion, who is a seasoned etymologist whose credits include BBC Radio and the Oxford University Press.  

Belly of the Beast

Though not word-for-word (these things tend to change with time and translation), the phrase originates with the Old Testament tale of Jonah. Jonah, having pissed off God, hops on a ship to escape. God, all-powerful as he is, sets the sea a-roiling, scaring the sailors. In order to get the sea to stop churning, the men have to throw Jonah over where

The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

While this translation (the King James version) called it “a great fish,” other versions of the story have called it a whale or beast. In time, and with many, many iterations, the phrase has come to generally mean being in a particularly unpleasant place. Specifically, it can mean “in prison” if you go by the title of Jack Abbott’s book,  which consists of letters sent to Norman Mailer while Mr. Abbott served time. According to, it can also mean a particularly rough neighborhood, especially enemy territory.  It’s the title of a song by Anthrax and the title of a movie which stars Steven Seagal.

Like many such phrases, the meaning becomes skewed with time and reuse. The great fish of the Jonah story actually (with God’s help) saved Jonah from drowning. While the experience was certainly terrifying, the ultimate message was one of salvation and learning to trust. The applications to prisons, scary neighborhoods, etc. don’t completely follow.

There is also some argument that “belly of the beast” refers to the underside of the serpent from the biblical Eden. (See explanation at known-conspiracy-theorist, our-world-leaders-are-lizard-aliens-from-space-guy David Icke’s webpage.) This explanation seems a bit thin, as the context is to be inside the belly (actually or metaphorically) not on one’s belly or under one’s belly.

Dead as (deader than) a doornail

I’m sure you’ve heard it said: “I don’t know why they say door nail, wouldn’t a coffin nail be deader?” The phrase means that something is unequivocally dead (either actually without life or figuratively dead—like a broken appliance).  The Wiktionary notes that an early use of the phrase appears in the 14th century English poem Piers Plowman, the English translation of a 13th century French poem Guillaume de Palerme, and it may have appeared in another work called Parliament of the Three Ages.  Here’s line 65 from that anonymous 14th century poem:

Dede als a dore-nayle doun was he fallen;

So it appears that the phrase did not originate in some particular piece of writing, rather those writers borrowed it from the common vernacular. Michael Quinion reasons that doornails were considered the ultimate-in-deadness because of how they were used. Carpenters used long nails to attach the horizontal beams to the vertical slats on a door. After the nails were pounded in, the protruding ends were smashed down to secure the nail. Doing this rendered the nail “dead,” as the bent nails would be impossible to extract and use again.

How the Other Half Lives

In the past couple years, we’ve become quite familiar with the phrases “the 1%,” “the 99%”, “the 47%,” and “the whatever-percent-supports-my-argument.” But before that, it was 50%—or “the other half.” According to Albert Jack, the term how the other half lives first appeared in a French novel published in 1532 that had a ridiculously long title but is commonly known as Pantagruel. The book, written by François Rabelais, is the first of a series about two giants—Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. The books are full of violence, sex, bodily secretions, war, and some (albeit heavily allegorical) social commentary. The original sentence (translated to English) goes like this:

One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.

 (Note: I attempted to read through some of the Pantagruel book, and as expected, the modern English translation of the old French makes it difficult to follow. However, I did discover that the book has some great character names—Lord Kissbreech and Lord Suckfist being two such awesome monikers. )

The phrase became popular in modern English after the 1890 publication of a photo book by Dutch immigrant Jacob Riis that exposed the terrible conditions of the New York City slums to the naïve upper classes. How the Other Half Lives contains essays, photos, and sketches of the shockingly squalid conditions that the poor “half” of 19th century New Yorkers endured. Riis, hardly rich himself, got the idea for the book while working as a police photographer. His pictures and descriptions shocked the upper crust, and it did, ultimately spur change over the next few decades.  

What the Dickens?/Hurts like the Dickens

Even though Charles Dickens is the origin of many oft-repeated allusions and phrases (see Artful Dodger, butterfingers, boredom, flummox, and about a 1000 others), he’s not the source of this polite way to say hell.  As far back as the 16th century, devilkin meant devil, and it was pronounced dickens. An early appearance of this usage in text comes to us from the other English dude whose phrases permeate our everyday communication—Shakespeare. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, circa 1600, Mistress Page says:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight's
name, sirrah?

I find this interesting, because I think people really do associate Charles Dickens with the phrase. I wonder, was he really that scary? Or is it that people think him innocuous and therefore feel that it’s safer to invoke his name when Grandma’s in the room than to say devil or hell?

In a Pickle

To be in a pickle is to be in a tricky or hard to escape situation.  The word pickle once meant a spicy sauce that accompanied meat. Later, in the 16th century, pickle referred to the salt and vinegar mixture used to preserve foods, and last, it referred to the preserved foods themselves. E.g., we use the term pickle to refer to a pickled cucumber.

An early use of this phrase seems to support that it was meant literally—that to be in a pickle was to be on the menu. Consider this example (translated from the original Old English) from The Morte Arthur (circa 1440) that describes the golden King’s beastly meals:

He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices.

Those poor children were, literally, in a pickle.

Though not first used by William Shakespeare, he seems to get the credit for making the figurative usage popular. Consider this exchange between characters Alonso and Trinculo from The Tempest:


And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded 'em?
How camest thou in this pickle?


I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

Here the context seems to suggest that being in a pickle was the same as being drunk. Furthermore, Trinculo’s drunkenness has put him in a tricky situation, so the reference to being in a pickle can be interpreted as meaning both drunk (pickled with liquor) and being in trouble.

How about you?

What are some of your favorite allusions? Is there a particular allusion that has always stumped you? Put them in the comments, and I may be able to include them in future column. There are so very many allusions which we use daily, it would be easy to think of more.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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