Allusion is one of the most pervasive literary devices—so ubiquitous that we often fail to notice it. In fact, you probably don’t even know that most of the texts you read on a daily basis contain at least a few instances of it; some of them are merely casual, but others are vital for the understanding of their immediate context or even the whole piece. To demonstrate why knowing your allusions is important even for everyday reading practices, we decided to select 10 sentences from contemporary newspaper articles and elucidate the origin and meaning of their indirect references.
10 Examples of Using Allusion in a Sentence
Example #1: Basilisk
[Margaret Thatcher] now sports a large pair of spectacles, which she often holds by the sidepiece while reading an answer, before whipping them off to give the Labour benches a basilisk stare. She has never been a great debater or a great emoter, but she remains a great presence. (Julian Barnes, New Yorker, March 5, 1990)
Basilisk is Greek for “little king” and is the name that several ancient writers used to refer to a legendary serpent or reptile alleged to be the ruler of all lizards. According to most of these descriptions, both its venom and gaze were extremely deadly. It can be used both as a noun and as an adjective – it alludes to the creature in the first case, and is usually paired with “stare” in the second one.
Example #2: Caesar’s Wife
Politically for women, the Caesar’s Wife syndrome can be deadly. To accept a standard of political perfection for female candidates in the clear absence of such a standard for male candidates… is to bid for political powerlessness. (J. B. Dixon, Detroit News, June 7, 1993)
In 62 BC, five years after marrying Caesar, his second wife Pompeia, had the honor—as the wife of the then-newly elected Pontifex maximus— to host the Bona Dea festival, a religious ceremony for an invited group of elite females; no man was allowed to attend the rite. However, a young politician named Publius Clodius Pulcher did manage to infiltrate himself in the sacred house, according to some, by seducing Pompeia. Even though he was acquitted and no wrongdoing was found on the part of Pompeia, Caesar decided to divorce her. When asked why, he said that Caesar’s wife “ought not even to be under suspicion.” In other words, Caesar’s wife—used for both genders—is a person above any reproach and criticism, free from even a semblance of wrongdoing.
Example #3: Gaslighting
Donald Trump’s gaslighting has led the country into a spiral of doubt, anger and despair. (Stephanie Sarkis, USA Today, October 3, 2018)
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play by English writer Patrick Hamilton, originally titled Gas Light, but adapted twice for the big screen—in 1940 and 1944—as Gaslight. It was the latter movie, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, which contributed to making the term an entry in modern dictionaries of allusions. In both the play and the film adaptations, a man manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane by convincing her that he is the only source for true information and everybody else is lying. Ever since the 1944 movie, a “gaslighter” is someone who wants to profoundly distort another’s perception of reality, a process usually referred to as gaslighting.
Example #4: Gordian Knot
A new referendum is now the only way of cutting the Gordian knot of there being no majority in the Commons, no majority in the public realm, no majority in economic Britain on any kind of Brexit. (Denis MacShane, Independent, 16 July 2018)
In Greek mythology, Gordias was a peasant farmer who was declared the king of Phrygia after his entering the town on an ox-cart fulfilled a then-current prophecy. Gordias’ son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to Zeus and tied it to a column of the supreme god’s temple with an intricate and elaborate knot. Since it was believed that whoever could undo this knot would become a ruler of all Asia, many tried to untie it—but to no avail! Alexander the Great made an effort with it as well, until he grew tired of struggling with the knot and decided to cut it with a single stroke of his sword. So, if “Gordian knot” refers to a knotty, insoluble problem, “cutting the Gordian knot” means taking a swift and decisive out-of-the-box action that should resolve the problem once and for all.
Example #5: Kafkaesque
Customer service, in its myriad forms, becomes more Kafkaesque by the day. (Oscar Rickett, Guardian, October 2, 2014)
Franz Kafka was a Czech writer of Jewish ethnicity who wrote—in German—some of the most haunting literary works of the 20th century. Almost all of them are bizarre and somewhat surreal, inhabited by perplexed protagonists either burdened with inexplicably strange problems or oppressed by menacing and bafflingly complex bureaucracies. When used, the adjective “Kafkaesque” refers to such an atmosphere. It is when you suddenly enter an absurdly labyrinthine world of inflexibility in which, despite your best efforts, nothing you do seems to help you make a step forward.
Example #6: Luddite
Am I a Luddite if I dropped out of Facebook for good in November 2016? Am I a Luddite if I own a flip phone and only use it for phone calls? Am I a Luddite if I get my news from a newspaper?… Yeah, I’m a Luddite and I’m happy to say so. (Karen Conover, The Denver Post, January 24, 2018)
Ned Ludd was a semi-mythical figure who supposedly smashed two knitting frames belonging to a Leicestershire employer around 1779. After deducing that these new textile machines will eventually displace them from their jobs, bands of craftsmen started replicating this act in rebellion during the early years of the 19th century. They were named Luddites by the press, a term which is used pejoratively today to describe someone who is opposed to technological change. However, as can be seen in the passage above, the word has started gaining a more positive meaning in some circles in our tech-obsessed and somewhat dehumanized world.
Example #7: O.K. Corral
He believed that he had every right to be there and he stated to his neighbor that if anybody came to get him out of his house, it would be the OK Corral. (Park County sheriff’s officer Jeremy Lowrance, quoted in a 9News article from September 1, 2016)
On November 26, 1881, the Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan—teamed up with Doc Holliday and took on the loosely organized Conchise County Cowboys gang in a 30-second gunfight which has gone down in history as the most famous shootout of the Wild West. The expression “gunfight at the O.K. Corral” is now widely used to allude to a final showdown of dramatic proportions, and the phrase “O.K. Corral” can also simply refer to the site where such a confrontation may happen.
Example #8: Rashomon
We don’t yet know how the wrenching, Rashomon-like Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh will influence the looming midterm elections. (Andrew Romano, Yahoo News, September 29, 2018)
“Rashōmon” is the title of both a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and a much more well-known 1950 movie by Japan’s most renowned cinematic auteur, Akira Kurosawa; interestingly, even though the film borrows the title from the mentioned literary work, it is actually based on a different short story by Akutagawa, titled “In a Grove.” In both this latter story and the movie, the rape of a young bride and the murder of her supposedly noble samurai husband is recounted four times by four different people: the bandit, the wife, the murdered samurai (through a medium), and a witnessing woodcutter. Not only the versions are distinctly different—and gravely contradict—each other, but also, after all it’s said and done, Kurosawa still leaves the despairing viewers without revealing to them what actually happened. The movie poses questions such as “Is truth an objective or a subjective phenomenon?” and “Is truth in any way attainable?” Thus, “Rashomon” is used when someone wants to refer to a variety of conflicting reports and his/her inability to discern the real truth from them.
Example #9: Say It Ain’t So
But what happens when you deduct the central character and namesake from a show? Such might be the case for Grey’s Anatomy after actress, Ellen Pompeo, hinted at her desire to take on other projects. But after 13 years as our beloved doctor, will Meredith be leaving Grey’s Anatomy? Say it ain’t so. (Candace Granger, Romper, September 27, 2018)
Made known to many through the 1989 Academy Award-nominated tearjerker, Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the earliest baseball superstars, a star outfielder and a tremendous hitter. However, after the White Sox lost the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, he was one of eight White Sox players accused of taking a hefty bribe to underperform and throw the Series. Even though a year-long investigation returned not guilty verdicts on all accounts for everybody involved, the then-newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Landis, imposed a lifetime ban on all eight players. Moreover, Shoeless Joe Jackson allegedly confessed to throwing the Series in sworn grand jury testimony. A day after the supposed confession, Charley Owens, a journalist for Chicago Daily News, wrote a touching tribute to Jackson under the title “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Ever since then, the phrase “say it ain’t so” is used when one learns something which he/she doesn’t want to be true, even though the evidence decidedly points in the opposite direction.
Example #10: Walter Mitty
Colin Firth’s new film invites sympathy for a Walter Mitty who cheated then vanished in yachting’s greatest ever scandal. But was he put up to it by a headline-hungry reporter? (Claudia Joseph, Daily Mail, October 27, 2018)
Walter Mitty is the title character in James Thurber’s famous 1938 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” A mild-mannered, hapless man, he seems trapped in an unrewarding marriage to a henpecking wife. Incapable of facing his problems, Walter Mitty frequently escapes the humdrum reality of his life in a series of heroic daydreams. Consequently, in most cases, when someone is described as a Walter Mitty, it is meant that he is an ineffectual idealist. However, sometimes a Walter Mitty may also refer to a person who tries to convince others that he is something that he is not, a Frank Abagnale sort of guy (yes, that’s the guy Leonardo DiCaprio plays in Catch Me If You Can).