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Was a parting shot once a real bullet?

A parting shot, a phrase used to mean a final remark, usually pointed or cutting, made by a person at the moment of leaving, started out as something quite different: a ‘Parthian shot’. And it was indeed both live and dangerous.

The Parthians were an ancient race living in southwest Asia; they were skilled warriors with exceptionally clever battle tactics. Parthian horsemen would baffle their enemies with their rapid manoeuvres; most deadly was their strategy of discharging missiles backwards while fleeing or pretending to flee. A Parthian shot was, quite literally, a lethal one.

The idea of delivering this final blow passed figuratively into the language in the seventeenth century. Over time ‘Parthian’ was corrupted to ‘parting’ as fewer people understood the allusion — and, of course, the replacement makes perfect sense.

There is another wonderful phrase, much less used, which also describes a parting comment, but with a crucial difference: it is a comment thought up by a person leaving a situation and which would have been the perfect retort had it come to mind at the time. Esprit de l’escalier, French for ‘wit of the staircase’ and coined by the eighteenth-century philosopher Diderot, brilliantly sums up that frustration of thinking of exactly the right response to someone as you are on your way out, when the opportunity to make it has gone.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent