A surprising number of common expressions involve proper nouns. Some such nouns originate in the Bible (“To raise Cain,” “A Judas kiss”). Some spring from mythology (“Trojan horse,” “As strong as Atlas”). Some refer to places (“To meet one’s Waterloo,” “Bronx cheer”). Some mention unknown people (“Lazy Susan,” “Heavens to Betsy”). Some incorporate nations or nationality (“Beware of Greeks,” “Dutch courage”).
Now and then, I propose to examine such expressions. Let’s begin with mythology.
Legend tells us the people of Troy (Trojans) possessed enormous strength and energy. Proverbially, they were more trustworthy and courageous than others of their time.
Both “To work like a Trojan,” and, “Trusty as a Trojan,” have been in English idiom since the late 17th century. If you do anything “Like a Trojan,” you demonstrate energy, endurance, and perseverance. “A Trusty Trojan” is an all-round good guy, maybe a drinking companion. About the mid-19th century, a professional gambler was known as a “Trusty Trojan.”
Trojan and Trojan horse entered English in the late 1500s, but Trojan horse has been known in several other languages since the time of Homer’s Iliad (c. ninth century BC).
Troy was the city state of King Priam. In, the Iliad, Helen, daughter of Zeus, was abducted by Paris, Priam’s son. This provoked the Trojan War, a 10-year siege of Troy by the Greeks.
Eventually, the Greeks announced they would lift the siege. As they prepared to withdraw, they sent a gift to the beleaguered city’s inhabitants — an enormous wooden horse. The Iliad says one Trojan warned, “Do not trust the horse Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”
The people of Troy ignored this warning, causing disastrous results. It turned out that the horse was packed with Greek soldiers who, once inside Troy’s walls, burst from the horse and looted and razed the city.
This story gave us two well-known sayings: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” and “Trojan horse.”
A Trojan horse is a strategy to defeat or take over from within; a symbol of treachery.
This ancient saying’s usage continues to broaden with computer science adopting the term. Thus, in modern usage, a Trojan horse is a program which breaches a computer’s security system by functioning as part of the legitimate program, its purpose being to erase, corrupt, or remove data. It differs from a virus or worm in that it doesn’t replicate or make copies of itself.
For centuries, historians believed the story of Troy to be merely fiction but, in 1870, during an archeological dig in Asiatic Turkey near the Dardanelles, a stronghold was uncovered that has been identified as Troy. This place is called Hissarlik today.
The names Troy and Trojan mean, “brave; plucky; a person of great energy and perseverance.”
Oxford tells us that Trojan entered Late Middle English as Troyan or Troian and originally referred to ancient Troy or its inhabitants. By 1600, it had taken on the colloquial meaning of, “a merry or roistering fellow; a boon companion; a person of dissolute life.”