In the news recently was an item about a young man who was planning to bomb some cheerleaders – apparently because he resented the fact that they didn’t want to have sex with him – but in the process of making the bomb he blew his hand off. Hoist with his own petard!
It’s a popular phrase, “hoist with [his/her/their/your/my] own petard.” I’m a little more partial to “went hunting and shot [his/her/their/your/my] dog,” though that doesn’t mean quite exactly the same thing. But many people also prefer a slightly different version: “hoist on [his/her/their/your/my] own petard.” The with version has always been the more popular – currently about five times as popular, if Google Ngrams are any index – but the on has a certain appeal.
I mean, hoisting, right? It lifts a person up? Like a hook?
Say, what is a petard, anyway? It’s like a halberd or something, isn’t it? So you would be hoisted in the air on your own long stafflike pointy weapon thingy?
That is not what a petard is. And the scope of implications of hoist has changed over the centuries since Shakespeare first wrote the line.
Oh, yes, the phrase “hoist with his own petard” – which is really the only way petard is even used anymore – is from Hamlet, act 3, scene 4: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard.” He’s talking about his plan to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver a letter that, unbeknownst to them, orders their own execution – in place of the letter they think they are delivering, ordering Hamlet’s execution. Hamlet continues from that line: “and ’t shall go hard But I will delve one yard below their mines, And blow them at the moon.” He promises to deliver both injury and insult – sort of like the Frenchman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the one who says “I fart in your general direction” and then catapults a cow at the Englishmen. Except these schoolfriends of Hamlet will be having their own cow and farting in their own general direction.
Do you know the French word pet, by the way? It’s the source of petard, which, because it’s from French, is pronounced with a short e and the stress on the second syllable (but these days we do say the d at the end). Pet doesn’t have to do with dogs, but it does have to do with something dogs often do: fart. A petard is a small explosive device that goes off with a loud bang; the ‘farter’ name is a bit of soldier humour. Petards were typically limpet mines and were used for such things as blowing gates and doors open. Of course if you’re going to attach one to a door, you have to put a short fuse on it or there’s a good chance the people on the other side of the door will knock it off before it blows.
So when Bill Spearshaker wrote his line, he meant ‘blown into the air by his own short-fused explosive’. And while these days hoist implies lifting with some solid device (hook, knotted rope, platform), at Shakespeare’s time it could also imply lifting by explosive force.
Which, incidentally, it doesn’t seem the incel in the news story was – all of his body except his hand stayed at floor level, though that one hand was definitely displaced (I’ll spare you further details). But he sure did to himself what he was hoping to do to others. I don’t think he will be repeating that, either.