windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Euripides

What Is The Origin Of (127)?…

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Nine days’ wonder

We use this phrase to describe something which grabs attention and then its popularity wanes after a short while – unlike this blog, I hope. A modern day equivalent would be Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

It is tempting when investigating the genesis of phrases to be lured into thinking that there is a historical character at the bottom of it. Take Lady Jane Grey who was named his successor to the English throne by Edward VI on his death bed. However, she lasted just nine days, the Privy Council changing sides and backing the claims of Henry VIII’s first daughter, Mary. Jane was dispatched to the Tower of London and had her head chopped off the following year. A nine days’ wonder, for sure, and in retrospect a Protestant martyr but the origin of the phrase – no.

And then there is the Elizabethan clown, William Kemp, upon whom Shakespeare is thought to have based Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. For a bet he danced a morris dance all the way from London to Norwich in 1599 – the Town Council still hold a document recording the payment of his prize money. Kemp completed the hundred or so mile journey by dancing for nine days, although in elapsed time it took a number of weeks because, sensibly, he decided to stop and recuperate after each day’s terpsichorean activity. To silence those who doubted his achievement, Kemp wrote an account of his exploits, published in 1600, entitled Kemps nine daies wonder.

Charming as this story is, Kemp is not the originator of the phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary regards the phrase as belonging to Middle English and cites as an example its appearance in the Harley Lyrics which are dated around 1325. About fifty years later Geoffrey Chaucer came up with a variant in Troilus and Chriseyde, “ek wonder last but nyne nyght nevere in towne”.  Charles d’Orleans, a French prince and poet, was captured at the Battle of Agincourt and spent a number of years languishing in an English jail, whiling away his time by writing poetry, including this extract, “For this a wondyir last but dayes nyne, an oold proverb is seid”. Clearly by the 15th century our phrase, or at least a variant of it, had attained the status of a proverb.

Shakespeare used a variant of the conceit in As You Like It, “I was seven out of the nine days out of the wonder before you came” but the first recorded version of our phrase to appear in print was in George Herbert’s poem, published in 1633, called The Temple; “the brags of life are but a nine days wonder”. Byron in Don Juan (1819) used the phrase in its modern sense of something that mercurially grabs the public’s attention and then fades quickly away; “the pleasant scandal which arose next day/ the nine days’ wonder that was brought to light/ and how Alfonso sued for a divorce/ were in the English newspapers, of course”.

So the phrase has a long pedigree but why nine days? The number nine appears in the Bible 49 times and symbolises finality. The novena, a period of devotional praying, lasted nine days and nights. But this explanation doesn’t sit well with the sense of the phrase and, in any event, a number of other phrases use the number nine – lives, stitches, possession in the eyes of the law, to name just three. And then I remembered a line from Athenian playwright, Euripides, “Since luck’s a nine days’ wonder, wait their end”, a pre Christian era usage.

The precise reason for using nine days may be shrouded in mystery but our phrase, it would seem, is anything but a nine days’ wonder.

A New Tragedy By Euripides

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According to those who give the impression that they know, this Christmas will see over £5bn spent in the UK via the internet. Whilst the internet is undoubtedly very convenient as a medium for shopping, it does come with some downsides as this sad little story amply illustrates.

I live in a Hellenophile household and one of the pleasures that some of us enjoy is a cup of frappe. So I decided as a Crimbo present to buy some Nescafe Frappe granules. Diligent internet searching (approx. 2 seconds) led me to the South American river site and a photo showing two tins of frappe granules for £14.99 to be supplied by FoodsandGoods. I placed my order. So far, so good.

One of the bugbears of internet shopping is not being in when your package is delivered and having to trek to some God forsaken industrial unit to collect it. Inevitably, this is what happened here. I was somewhat surprised to only collect one tin sent from Greece but assumed the other was on its way.

After two days the second tin had still not turned up and so I made enquiries through the merchant’s website and encountered the wonderfully named Euripides. As a classics graduate I had read most of the Greek tragedian Euripides’ surviving plays and often had the fantasy of talking with him. Now, here I was in direct contact with someone bearing his name.

I transcribe the dialogue in all its glory – I apologise that there are no flowing iambs but when you are extemporising, you have to work with what you have got. But, at least, like the plays of Euripides, there are lessons contained within the dialogue that the shrewd reader should reflect on, in this case when buying via the internet.

Me: I was expecting two tins – only one has arrived. Please advise.

Euripides:  We are really sorry for the misunderstanding, your order was for 200gr of Nescafe which is in one tin. I understand that the photograph may confuse you so we try to improve and have changed the foto.

Me: Nearly £15 for a tin of Frappe is outrageous – retails for about €6 in Greece. Not only have you misrepresented what you are selling but you have charged an exorbitant price.

(Stage direction – a chorus of Furies enters stage right).

Euripides: Retail price in Greece is really €6 and shipment costs (you can see on the stamps) is €5.9. Please add 15% fees of Amazon and you can see that our margin is really small. If you are not satisfied with your order please send it back to us and you will be fully refunded.

Me: As the Romans say, caveat emptor.

Euripides: I hope you believe that our price is not outrageous as we wish to keep you happy with your order the best think we can do is to get a return (sic).

Me: The goods are a Christmas present so I am not going to return them. I will put it down to a bad experience and not do business with you again.

Moral of the story – if the deal looks too good to be true, it generally is and don’t be taken in by the photos!

Happy New Year!