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October 24, 1999 - Dictionary of Allusions - 2002-02-06

INTRO: This week VOA Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble talk to a master of allusion.


AA: Napoleon didn't have much to sing about at Waterloo, as he met his final defeat against the forces of the Duke of Wellington.

RS: Yet thanks to Napoleon, people can now describe a defeat or setback as a "waterloo"

and others are likely to know what they mean.

AA: So what happened on a battlefield near Brussels, Belgium, in 1815, today can describe a big loss on, say, a football field.

"Waterloo" is an allusion, a-l-l-u-s-i-o-n.

RS: Not to confused with an illusion, spelled with an "i," which is an imaginary appearance.

Allusion spelled with an "a" is a term or expression taken from its original context and applied in a different context, to explain or dramatize or make a more colorful comparison.

AA: That's the definition from editor and writer Elizabeth Webber, co-author of Merriam Webster's new Dictionary of Allusions.


"Allusions come into our language from all different points, from popular culture, from movies, from cartoons, from the sciences. Our goal in writing the book was to come up with a reference book that would be useful to people from many backgrounds."

RS: So do you know where the common allusion "bite the bullet" comes from? We happened to see it in a newswire story the day Elizabeth Webber visited us. The story said a big Japanese automaker would have to "bite the bullet."


"'Bite the bullet' refers to the old procedure of pre-anesthesia days when a patient was given a bullet to bite during surgery. That was the only solace doctors were able to offer. So it is to step up and endure something difficult and painful with as much courage as you can muster."

AA: Elizabeth Webber says many allusions come from Shakespeare...

RS: She cites "Lady Macbeth" as a term that may be used to refer to a forceful woman...

RS: But when it comes to building that proverbial "better mousetrap," credit goes to American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson:


"It is said that he said, `If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or build a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.' The expression was taken up to apply to anyone who comes up with a better way of doing things."

RS: There's at least one phrase where allusion and illusion meet. To see the "handwriting on the wall" means to sense that something bad is going to happen.

AA: Elizabeth Webber says she was surprised to find that that's a biblical reference to words that appeared on the wall during a great feast held by the King of Babylon.


"The Prophet Daniel came and said that the words foretold the fall of the king, and he said, `God hath numbered thy kingdom ... Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.'"

RS: Some allusions are taken from other countries or cultures...

AA: but not always used tastefully, in Elizabeth Webber's opinion.


"One of the examples we had was someone criticizing the architecture of the Disney [park] in France as a `cultural Chernobyl.' Another one that we have in there is `kabuki,' a reference to the Japanese theater, the very stylized theater with the distinctive white makeup. That is used rather frequently to describe that our politics or political disputes are sometimes rather ritualized and that everyone plays a certain role that is almost pre-determined, so they refer to it as `political kabuki.'"

AA: Elizabeth Webber, co-author with Mike Feinsilber of the new Dictionary of Allusions.

RS: Now, if you have a question about American English, send it to Avi and me. If we read your question on the air, we'll send you a VOA souvenir. Our e-mail address is

Or write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington, DC 20547 USA.

AA: And remember to send us your mailing address.

With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Waterloo"