15 July 2015

Comme un Pétard Théorique

It would be unconscionable to hold a friend up to ridicule for writing about hoisting someone on her own petard. Especially as the friend is a best-selling author. Not the same author that I was pictured with at the ALCS do last week, on Facebook, though he is not a renowned grammarian.

It would not only be unconscionable: it would surely be only a matter of time before I commit a greater faux pas, and I don't want him or anyone else thumbing their noses at me.

Used that way, it sounds as if a petard is a flagpole or similar device. In fact it is a bomb, and the word comes from from the Middle French péter, to break wind, according to Wikipedia. Nowadays it is what we might call a banger or firecracker, but it seems to have meant something more lethal when the expression "hoist by with own petar"* was used (or even coined) by Shakespeare (who else?), in Hamlet, Act III scene iv line 207. (Line 179 gave us the expression "cruel to be kind" - so it wasn't Nick Lowe!) I'm now intrigued to see what it's like in Russian, but I can't find a translation - it would be nice to locate a copy of Boris Pasternak's. Nice also to find a clip of Visotsky performing it, but that will also have to wait until I have more time. Maybe I can search using Yandex (slogan найдётся всё, or "find everything"). Here we are, and it wasted only a few minutes: Взорвать его же миной. Google Translate, unaccustomed to Shakespearean English, says "blow up his own mine".

Actually, Pasternak, now that I have found his translation (another few minutes), seems to be much more idiomatic: Забавно будет, если сам подрывник/ Взлетит на воздух ("it would be amusing to blow up the demolition man" - I think something has been lost in double translation there. I know that если means "if" and сам means "self", as in the first syllable of "samizdat", self-published, and both those concepts seem to have been overlooked by the translation machine. Подрывник is one of those useful words formed by adding ник or just ик to the end of a word to denote a person associated with the meaning of the word - so, here, a blower-up or underminer). Of course, it occurs to me, Shakespeare was expressing the idea that more recently has been called, mirthlessly, an "own goal". So Pasternak's version could be rendered in English as "wouldn't it be funny if the demolition man blew himself up?" And the answer would invariably be "no".

Anyway, back to the point of the story, if story be the right word. "Hoist" is the past tense of the archaic verb "to hoise" (from which perhaps comes the verb "to hoy", which in my childhood was used more often than the conventional "to throw"), although it is also used these days to denote the state of having been raised to somewhere. Google Translate seems to be taking "hoist" as present tense. The meaning has obviously shifted a bit - you wouldn't talk of someone being hoist or hoisted by a bomb nowadays. But you certainly shouldn't talk of someone being hoist on their own petard.

*The Bard appears to have dropped the last letter, and in some versions an apostrophe appears in its place, to emphasise the pun on breaking wind - although this is far from being a light-hearted episode in the tragedy of Hamlet!