Interactive Halloween timeline Next post: Witches, warlocks, and werewolves: an interactive Halloween timeline

Grinning goat Previous Post: Is it true that the word 'tragedy' originally meant 'goat-song'?

A Trojan Horse in the Tardis: it’s all an allusion…

At the beginning of October the Guardian newspaper published a survey of the best independent bookshops in the UK. Two were described in strikingly similar terms: ‘A Tardis among bookshops, [it] appears narrow at first glance, but packs a lot inside’ in one case, and ‘The Tardis-like bookshop is beautiful, with a stained-glass window depicting an ancient oak and a serene courtyard’, in another.

Tardis is one of my favourite allusions. Allusions are a colourful and pithy way of summing up some quality or characteristic or experience. Many of these names and references draw on stories that are part of our shared culture, from sources such as the Bible (David and Goliath, Judas, Samson), classical mythology (Midas, Narcissus, Trojan Horse), literature (Jekyll and Hyde, Romeo, Scrooge), children’s stories (Cinderella, Eeyore, Mad Hatter), and indeed television and cinema (Monty Python, Rambo, Stepford Wives).

Quo Tardis?

Some allusions that have entered the English language are just so useful that you can’t help wondering how on earth we managed without them. In the long-running BBC sci-fi television series Doctor Who the Tardis (an acronym of Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) is the time machine in which the Doctor travels through time and space on his adventures. From the outside it resembles an old-fashioned London police telephone box, but it is significantly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The word ‘Tardis’ is often mentioned, particularly in the phrase ‘Tardis-like’, to describe somewhere that has a lot more room inside than it appears to from the outside. It is such a succinct way of expressing a familiar experience, and there doesn’t seem to be another turn of phrase that does the job so well. It is also interesting that it is usually this unique spatial feature of the Tardis that we refer to, not the fact that it is a time machine.

You ain’t nothin’ but a Groundhog

Another valuable addition to the language is Groundhog Day. This day is celebrated in the US on 2 February, when the groundhog appears out of its hole at the end of its hibernation and, depending on whether or not it can see its shadow, is said to predict how soon the onset of spring will be. In the 1993 film of the same name, the character played by Bill Murray finds himself repeatedly reliving the events of a particular Groundhog Day. And so the term Groundhog Day has come to stand for a situation in which a series of events – often unwelcome or tedious ones – appear to be recurring in exactly the same way. The closest equivalent is probably déjà vu – ‘a feeling of having already experienced the present situation’ – but this doesn’t convey the same sense of endless repetition. A market strategist was recently reported as describing developments in the European debt crisis as ‘another Groundhog Day for the markets’, with trading ‘following the same script’ as previous weeks. Another example from a cricket report: ‘Groundhog Day at Chester-le-Street. Once more drizzle in the air has delayed play…’ I could go on. And on…

There’s something about Mary

One final example. A recent newspaper article describes an old silverware factory in Birmingham, bought by English Heritage for conservation, where ‘everything lies as it was when the factory finally closed in 2008: machines, tools, invoices, dust, a heavy electric typewriter, the clocking-on machine’. It is ‘an inland version of the Mary Celeste’.

The Mary Celeste was an American brig found drifting in the north Atlantic in 1872, in perfect condition but abandoned, and with evidence of very recent occupation. The fate of the crew was never discovered. The Mary Celeste is now mentioned in the context of a deserted place, often one that appears to have been abandoned in mysterious circumstances.

Once again, there’s an elegant economy and precision in the use of a familiar allusion of this kind. English would be so much poorer without these neat chunks of linguistic shorthand. There’s so much more inside them than you’d think. Remind you of anything?