A selection of allusions and references

August 10, 2018
By Farah Tiwana

A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring....


“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” - Alexander Pope.

Whilst Alexander Pope might caution us against a ‘little learning’, I believe that one ought to have a little knowledge of as many diverse fields as possible; a splash of literature here, a sprinkling of mythology there, a touch of philosophy, a hint of science, a pinch of history, a taste of linguistics....

Such erudition widens one’s perspective on life, humanity and culture. One can draw on various fields to make oneself understood or to understand another person better through communication and language. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is what is meant by “being cultured” - that one is able to make and maintain intelligent and interesting conversation; that one is able to appreciate and inculcate in oneself what one reads; that one is able to enjoy life more fully for all the wonder and learning that there is to fascinate humankind.

This smattering of knowledge often presents itself in the form of ‘references’ and ‘allusions’ in either conversation or any kind of written communication. References are direct mentions of people, places, circumstances or events. For example: “The annual floods are a tragic consequence of the monsoon season”.

Allusions are indirect references. For example, if a person were to say ‘et tu Brute?’ to a friend to convey either real or mock feelings of betrayal, this would be an allusion to Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, where the protagonist says this as he dies.

For fellow language-lovers, this is a collection of interesting allusions and references to use, learn, share or simply appreciate.


A sea bird mentioned in S.T. Coleridge’s poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where the narrator shoots down this bird and brings a curse upon himself. As a result of this, he is forced to wear the albatross around his neck in penance. It symbolises a burden or curse that someone has to bear: The ever-increasing daily expenses are an albatross around the people’s neck. The albatross is also the subject of a song by the British band Bastille.

Basilisk tare

The basilisk is a legendary serpent of gigantic proportions, believed to be able to strike someone dead with its stare: my boss’ basilisk stare made me forget entirely the speech that I had prepared regarding a raise. The Basilisk also makes an appearance in Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets.


In 14th Century, St Mary of Bethlehem Hospital in London served as a hospital for the mentally ill. It was known for the chaos within its wall, and is now used to mean a place of noisy uproar and lack of order: ‘In the sales season, the marketplaces are scenes of pure bedlam’.


The title of a novel by Joseph Heller, in which the protagonist is faced with an impossible situation; this is commonly used to indicate a situation in which there is no solution, as any possible solution will bring about more problems: It was a Catch-22. The harder they tried to swim, the more tired they became. The more tired they were, the sooner they needed to reach the shore.

Doubting Thomas

Thomas was one of the twelve apostles mentioned in the New Testament. Thomas is said to have been absent from the amongst those that witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and when it was related to him by the other witnesses, he said he could not believe that it was true; Doubting Thomas is used to mean a sceptical or incredulous person: The evidence is in the findings from the experiment - show the results to any Doubting Thomases.

Ours not to reason why

A phrase adapted from the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, about soldiers taking part in an ill-fated battle “theirs not to reason why/ theirs but to do or die”. This is used to express resignation at decisions or orders from superiors: Although we might disagree with the new teaching schedule, ours is not to reason why.


The Exodus is the second book of the Bible, which describes the departure of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery under the leadership of Moses. It is used to imply a mass departure of people, usually emigrants: The war in Syria has prompted an Exodus to the west.

Face that launched a thousand ships

This is a description of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world married to the Greek Menelaus, who ran away with Paris, the Prince of Troy, thus initiating the Trojan War. The ‘thousand ships’ refers to the Greek fleet that sailed to Troy. It is used to suggest a woman of great beauty: She has a face that could launch a thousand ships.

Fermat’s Last Theorem

Pierre de Fermat was a French mathematician and founder of probability and number theory. In 1640, he formulated that “there do not exist positive integers x, y, z, n such that xn+yn=zn when n is greater than 2.” For the next 350 years mathematicians tried to provide proof of this, Fermat’s Last Theorem, until finally one succeeded in 1995. It is used to allude to a long quest to find a solution to a particular problem: The nature nurture debate is the Fermat’s Last Theorem of psychology.


The German secret police under the Nazis; now used to mean torture, oppression and interrogation: The Gestapo methods of the police instill fear in guilty and innocent alike.

Homer sometimes nods

A saying from English in the late 14th century, derived from the Roman poet Horace, who noted that ‘I am aggrieved when sometimes even Homer nods’, with nods referring to sleeping. This is used to mean that even the greatest expert can make a mistake: Whilst Dr Y is quite convinced of her hypothesis, and she has previous research studies to back it up, we must remember that, after all, Homer does sometimes nod.


According to popular legend, the Greek Mathematician Archimedes hit upon the principle of fluid displacement while in the bath - supposedly at the moment of epiphany, he jumped out of the bath and ran through the streets naked, shouting ‘Eureka! Eureka!’ (‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’). It is now used to mean a moment of discovery or a breakthrough, “There was a Eureka moment when the lab results helped us identify a new species of marine life”