Groß, dunkel und gutaussehend
Julius Cäsar: Ich kam, ich siegte - aber wie wird eine Triade draus? (Gemälde von Carl Piloty, "Die Ermordung des Julius Cäsar")
As the London 2012 Olympic Games get under way I am reminded of another horror story from my school days. It was athletics day, during which teams within the school competed against each other. I had finished all my planned races - including the 400 metres hurdles and the 800 metres - and was exhausted. Then, suddenly, I was told that another member of my team was injured and wouldn't be able to run in the final race, the 1,500 metres. I was asked if I would take his place. "It doesn't matter if you come last," I was told. "As long as you finish, we'll get a point."
Well, I did come last. But more embarrassing was that one of the teachers decided to have a joke at my expense when I had about 100 metres left to run. He announced to everyone over the loudspeaker: "And finally, here comes McMaster, who kindly decided to stay behind all the other runners to pick up anything that they might have dropped." I almost didn't finish the race at all for laughing so much.
Anyway, back to the Olympics, whose motto is Citius, altius, fortius. This, as I am sure you all know, is Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger". I'm not sure why the Olympics don't have a Greek motto, but that's their business. Well, at least the motto as is an example of a "hendiatris", a Greek word meaning "one through three". In other words, it is a figure of speech in which three key words are used to express one idea.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Figures of speech made up of three key words - also sometimes called "triads" - are very common in the political identities of countries. Germany has its Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit ("Unity and justice and freedom") while the French have their Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ("Freedom, equality, brotherhood.") And Canada has "peace, order and good government" as part of its constitution, while the United States Declaration of Independence talks of "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
And then, of course, there was the Roman general Julius Caesar and his Veni, vidi, vici ("I came; I saw; I conquered"), allegedly said in 47 BC as a comment on his short war with Pharnaces II of Pontus in the city of Zela (now part of Turkey).
Caesar's comment is actually an example of a "tricolon" - a sentence with three clearly defined parts of increasing power. You can almost imagine Caesar coming up with the slogan, "Veni, veci" - "I came; I conquered", which would have communicated the important message - and his spin doctors correcting him. "No, no, Caesar! You need a third part if you really want to make an impact. How about putting 'vidi' in the middle, Sir?"
Whatever. In English, there are many common and colourful triads, including:
- Wine, women and song: used to describe a hedonistic (normally male) lifestyle.
- Sex, drugs and rock and roll: more or less the same as the first one.
- Cold, wet and miserable: the cliché (and often reality) of British weather.
- Tall, dark and handsome: the stranger that horoscopes predict that women will meet.
- High, wide and handsome: something that is very big and impressive.
- Lock, stock and barrel: including everything; completely. (Guy Ritchie's film "Lock, stock and two smoking barrels" - in German, "Bube, Dame, König, grAS" - adapted this expression.)
- Every Tom, Dick and Harry: every (ordinary) person.
A key feature of all these expressions is that the word order is important. For example, although it would be grammatically correct to say "miserable, wet and cold", that wouldn't be the normal way to say it. Nor would you say, "drugs, rock and roll and sex", although that might be a more natural order of events.
Such "fixed expressions" are extremely common in many languages and should simply be learned by heart as a unit. So when talking about the weather - which, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, lived up to its cliché in Britain - you wouldn't say, "it's raining dogs and cats". You could, but nobody would. (In fact, very few Brits would even say, "it's raining cats and dogs", but text books give the impression that we go around saying it all the time.)
In athletics, there are also some common groups of three:
- Gold, silver and bronze: the medals that the competitors want to win.
- Hop, skip and jump: an informal term for the triple jump.
- On your marks, get set, go! instructions at the start of a race.
And there are some idioms that relate to athletics, including:
- The home straight: literally, the last section of a race. But also used to mean "the last part of an activity or campaign". So, when you have nearly finished a project, you could say, "we're on the home straight now". The opposite part of the athletics track is the "back straight".
- Jump the gun: literally, to start a race too quickly, before the gun has sounded. But, more generally, it also means to act too quickly: "Sarah jumped the gun with her marketing campaign - we haven't even finalized the product name."
- Get off to a flying start: literally, to start a race well. This can also be used to refer to making a good start on a project, campaign etc.
- Cross the finishing line: literally, to complete a race. More generally, it can mean to finish a project or task.
The Olympics also gave us one of the (unintentionally) funniest pieces of television commentary, during the 1976 Games in Montreal. Cuban Alberto Juantorena, who had the nickname El Caballo (the horse) for his long strides, won both the 400 metre and 800 metre gold medals. During one of his races, British commentator Ron Pickering said, "and there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class".
Well, I suppose I should just be grateful that my school teacher didn't say that about me over the loudspeaker. Although at the snail's pace that I was going, there wasn't much danger of that.