Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Begging the Other Cheek (Eight Phrases That Didn’t Always Mean What They Mean Now)

3 years ago

What up, my nerdlings!

So here’s a bit of a fun one. Over the years, as I’m sure you’re aware, any number of phrases have been coined in literature – in various classic books and tales, in the work of Shakespeare, in the Bible – and entered into common usage in the English language. What you may be less aware of is how often those phrases are immediately, massively distorted by misuse.

To that end, eight phrases you know and use, which no longer quite mean what the original authors meant...

Begging the Question

Where It’s From: Originally Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, as τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι (“asking the original point”), which was translated into Latin as petitio principia (“asking/pleading the premise”) and thence into English, in the 16th century, as begging the question.

How It’s Used: Very often, to mean that a statement has provoked further questions, as in, “Ted got the beers in, which begs the question, where did he get money?”

What It Originally Meant: Formally, begging the question is repeating your initial premise as proof for itself, as in the phrase, “broccoli is good for you because it’s a health food” or “one should believe the Bible is the word of God because it says it is and, being the word of God, it’s infallible.” It’s properly an informal fallacy, a rhetorical or logical device which isn’t necessarily false but which doesn’t prove the point it’s intending to prove.*

At any rate, nothing to do with Ted’s beers, which aren’t (according to the older sense) so much begging questions as raising them.

Begging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself... either because predicates which are identical belong to the same subject, or because the same predicate belongs to subjects which are identical.

Aristotle, Prior Analytics, II, xvi
trans. Hugh Tredennick

Foregone Conclusion

Where It’s From: Shakespeare’s Othello, as Iago tells his captain (lying through his teeth) that their lieutenant, Cassio, has been dreaming erotically of his (Othello’s) wife Desdemona.

How It’s Used: We usually use it, these days, to talk about something where the outcome is obvious, given current information. In a fight between a big guy and a little guy, we know the big guy’s probably gonna win; when you ask your mum for a second ice lolly, you know she’s gonna say no.† It means a safe bet, an unavoidable (or hard to avoid) future largely out of human hands.

What It Originally Meant: By conclusion, Shakespeare meant a “decision”; a foregone conclusion was a premeditated act. With Iago’s revelation, Othello has decided that Cassio’s and Desdemona’s (also fictional) infidelity was not a spur of the moment act, but a planned betrayal. Where we use the phrase to describe something that no-one can really choose or prevent, Shakespeare meant something that might not be inevitable or obvious at all, but was decided upon and deliberately carried out by those involved.

...or... “conclusion” was a euphemism for shagging, and Othello thought that Cassio’s dream meant he’d already got his end away with Desdemona prior to the dream. This is actually a point of contention among Shakespeare scholars! It’s definitely not being used that way now.

Othello: O monstrous, monstrous!
Iago: Nay, this was but his dream.
Othello: But this denoted a foregone conclusion.
Iago: ’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream,
And this may help to thicken other proofs,
That do demonstrate thinly.

Othello, Act III, scene iii.

The Game is Afoot

Where It’s From: Henry IV Part I, Act I, scene iii, “Before the game is afoot thou still let’st slip.” Northumberland is being quite rude to his son, suggesting he’s already fluffed his part in their scheming.

More famously, though, it’s also one of Sherlock Holmes's most-quoted lines, second only to “Elementary, my dear Watson.”‡

How It’s Used: Generally, to suggest a game – you know, with dice and a board, and cards or something. It means something interesting and challenging has begun in earnest. The BBC’s Sherlock modernises it to “The game is on!”

What It Originally Meant: It’s a hunting metaphor. “Game,” in this context, is an animal hunted for its meat (as in “game bird” or “game pie”). When the game is “afoot,” it’s on the run and the hunt has begun. Holmes most certainly used it in that sense – his “game” being Sir Brackenstall’s murderer, in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange – but hunting is less relevant to most of us than it used to be, and so nowadays we mostly assume he’s talking about chess or something. He liked chess, right? He must have done.

“Come, Watson, come!” he cried.
“The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

The Left Hand Doesn’t Know What the Right Hand is Doing

Where It’s From: The Book of Matthew. It’s from the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” where Jesus laid down the law for the new covenant he was offering.

How It’s Used: To suggest organisational incompetence. “Look here, we’ve been ordered by Procurement to buy six new cars, and Finance are telling us to scrap four of the ones we’ve got! Tch. You know, the left hand don’t know what the right hand’s doing, I tell you.”

What It Originally Meant: It was an injunction! Jesus was preaching against performing kind or charitable deeds for public praise; he said, to show God you’re really nice, you should do your charity in secret. And not just in secret, but so secret that even you don’t know you’re doing it! You’re literally unconsciously giving money to the poor with one hand while concentrating on something completely different with the other.

This is, of course, ridiculous, but it’s probable that the Sermon on the Mount was meant sort of rhetorically (more on this below).

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

Matthew, 6:3-4
King James Version

The Milk of Human Kindness

Where It’s From: Macbeth. Lady Maccers – who is straight up one of the illest characters you can play – is cussing out her husband for being too full of it (milk).

How It’s Used: In a quite nice way. Milk is, of course, a tasty and wholesome drink, and specifically something our society associates with mothers and nurturing. So the milk of human kindness is a compassionate, life-giving quality we admire and respect in others.

What It Originally Meant: She wasn’t thinking of milk in terms of its nourishing qualities, so much as its pallor and mildness. To be milky is to be light, weak, tasteless; none of them qualities suggestive of strength and determination, and Lady M was crazy keen on strength and determination.

Shakespeare returns to the milk imagery in Henry IV, Part I, when Hotspur, reading a letter from an unnamed conspirator, dismisses him as a “dish of skim milk,” something presumably even weaker and more contemptible than regular milk. I dunno what Shakespeare’s got against milk. Milk’s quite nice.

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

Macbeth, Act I, scene v.

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Where It’s From: Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., a lengthy elegiac to his friend Arthur Hallam, who’d died suddenly in 1833. It’s a meandering discourse on love, loss, and human nature.

How It’s Used: Usually to describe the violent and impersonal nature of Nature, whether in the form of animals or the elements. The implied contrast with humans, who are compassionate and rational, is generally intentional.

What It Originally Meant: It’s actually about humans! Tennyson was struggling with humanity’s tendency to selfishness, and the growing materialism that was doing such a good job of explaining the world he lived in. If we are all just sophisticated beasts, if we are all driven by the simple mechanisms of evolution, then where can we see proof that love – God’s ultimate law – does or should govern us?

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shriek’d against his creed

Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H.


Where It’s From: The Book of Luke. It’s one of the “Parables,” which were sort of moral riddles that Jesus used to tell his followers. He was crazy about riddles. Like, at his birthday, if you didn’t read the riddle in your cracker, he’d grab it and read it for you. Loved him some riddles.

How It’s Used: A Samaritan, “good” or otherwise, usually means someone who helps a stranger – especially one in dire need, who others are ignoring – with no expectation of reward or recognition. Aww. There’s even a suicide charity called The Samaritans – without the “Good,” which given the below makes me insanely suspicious of them.

What It Originally Meant: The Good Samaritan of the parable behaved in exactly that way, sure enough. But the point of the story was that Samaritans were famed for their selfishness and officiousness; “good Samaritan” was intended as a surprising dichotomy, like “ethical investment banker.”

Of course, the Samaritans are an ethnic and religious community that exists to this day, and I don’t believe they’re especially keen to be regarded as petty and grasping, but I guess it’s okay to be a bit racist when you’re quoting the Bible?

I dunno, man, it doesn’t seem like it should be.

And a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

Luke, 10:33
King James Version

Turn the Other Cheek

Where It’s From: The Book of Matthew again! Another one from the Sermon on the Mount. Basically Matthew’s all about the Sermon on the Mount.

How It’s Used: This is something your mum or teacher used to tell you if you were bullied or provoked at school. It suggests stoicism and self-discipline; just look away (i.e. “turn your cheek”) and ignore them.

What It Originally Meant: Jesus was going a bit further than just “don't rise to their bait.” He’s telling you to actively participate in your own victimisation; if a man hits you on one cheek, he says, then present the other cheek so that he can hit that one too. Your mum is unlikely to tell you to do this. The Sermon is famously one of the most challenging parts of the New Testament, presenting such an extreme model of virtue – offering yourself up to violence, performing charity in your sleep, never even accidentally thinking about sex with the wrong person – that, as mentioned above, it’s usually seen as rhetorical rather than intended literally.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

Matthew, 5:38-40
King James Version

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.


*A fallacy that is by definition untrue is a formal fallacy. Fun!

†Hence why you ask your dad instead.

‡Which, in fact, Holmes never says.