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.