petard

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.

Addendum:

I recently ran into a story about the origin of this phrase that I hadn’t heard before, which surprised me, given my familiarity with the subject – usually one runs into these amusing accounts from time to time, but I don’t know the original source of this one. The story is that “hoisted by my own petard” (the person I saw telling this story made the usual mistake with the quote) comes from “a very old theater trope in which a character intends to throw a bomb (petard) at someone but accidentally blows himself up, being hoisted in the air by a rope to the amusement of the audience.”

Now, the “with” versus “by” goof is no problem; it works either way. But we know, first of all, that Shakespeare is the common point of reference for the line. Now, the person relating the story pointed out it was possible that Shakespeare was quoting a common expression of the time, and in theory it is (though we will see in a moment why in practice it’s not so likely), but if you want to declare that he got it from somewhere else you actually have to give some evidence that he did, or at least that it existed before he said it. That’s how this all works; otherwise I could just say everything was actually made by elves and it would be unanswerable.

In any event, since the Shakespeare citation is unimpeachable, if Shakespeare got it from another source, Shakespeare’s reference to it should be consistent with the supposed source – and, of course, the source has to be no newer than Hamlet. So let’s look at that.

First, I will allow that hoist could already at Shakespeare’s time be used with ropes; the difference between now and then is just that now it can’t be used with being blown in the air. But those ropes…

Here’s the thing: English theatre in Shakespeare’s time was not performed in theatres as we’re used to them. They didn’t have fly lofts or rigging or anything of that sort. Many of them, including Shakespeare’s famous Globe, were open to the air – completely open; nothing to hang ropes from. The plays of the Elizabethan theatre were made to be performed wherever one could set them up: “two planks and a passion,” as the saying goes. Minimal scenery, and certainly nothing that would have to be raised or lowered from above. Stagecraft on the Continent at the time was overall not much more involved (there are some famous Italian Renaissance examples of indoor proscenium theatres, but even those were not equipped for this kind of stunt), and most of Shakespeare’s audience would not have gotten references to Continental theatre anyway. (How do I know all this stuff? Funny the things one learns in the course of getting a PhD in theatre. But do feel free to verify it.)

And then there’s the matter of what Shakespeare wrote: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard; and ’t shall go hard But I will delve one yard below their mines And blow them at the moon.”

So… engineer. Which is a bit inconsistent with the story, but let’s pretend the villain was an engineer (in the Elizabethan sense: no trains at the time!). But what’s this bit about delving one yard below their mines? How in the heck does that work with the story?

Well, it doesn’t. And there’s also the matter of a petard not being a thrown bomb. As I mention above, it was generally a limpet mine with a short fuse; its use was to blow open gates and other fortifications (an effort that was vulnerable to being undermined as Shakespeare describes). A hand-thrown bomb was then, as it is now, a grenade (also called a grenado or granade at the time). Grenades were in use (somewhat limited, but at least a bit) in warfare at Shakespeare’s time, though he doesn’t mention grenades even once in his plays.

I will say, too, that I can’t think of a play from the Elizabethan era (let alone earlier) where a villain attempts to throw a grenade, but there could be one, I suppose – I haven’t read them all, and not all of them have survived. But a plot device of a bomb-wielding villain being blown in the air by his own device seems much more modern to me, just going on my own education; if you have contradictory evidence, I’ll be genuinely interested to see it.

My guess is that whoever made up that story saw a play from the nineteenth or early twentieth century that had something like that in it and decided that that was where the phrase came from. That is, in my experience, a pretty common way for people to make up folk etymologies. But folk etymologies are the fairy tales of historical linguistics. They’re bad history (and bad theatre history in particular in this case), often bad sociology and bad psychology, and always bad linguistics. And they’re not a great thing to stake one’s intellectual credibility on. Research is easy these days; I recommend it.

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