Hoist With His Own Petard

By Maeve Maddox

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I think Keith Olbermann may have had something to do with popularizing this Shakespearean expression.

In July 2005 Olbermann, writing about the London bus bombing, wrote:

July 21st may turn out to be the day the terrorists began to blow themselves up — hoist themselves, as the Middle English phrase goes, “on their own petard.”

I can’t guess why he called it a “Middle English phrase.” The expression, meaning “blown up by his own bomb,” comes from Shakespeare’s time (1605). By then, Middle English had morphed into Modern English.

As recently as Election Eve 2008, Olbermann was still using the phrase:

I’m trying to give Gov. Palin out there, a couple more seconds to figure out how she managed to get herself, as Shakespeare wrote of people destroyed by their own evil plans, “hoist with her own petard.” Keith Olbermann October 31, 2008

Here is how the expression is used in Hamlet (III, iv, 206-208):

For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar, an’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon.

Hamlet is talking about his old college chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been spying on him for the king, and Hamlet suspects they are laying a trap for him. He’s planning his own preëmptive strike.

A “petar” was an explosive device. It got its name from the French verb pêter, which means “to break wind.” The Old French noun pet means “fart.” Shakespeare was making one of his earthy puns here.

Note that in the original expression, hoist is a verb in the past tense. Writers who want to use the expression correctly need to keep that fact in mind.

The “hoist” of current English usage retains the same meaning, “to raise, to lift up,” but in modern usage, the past tense form has been regularized to “hoisted.”
Ex. The crane hoisted the girder into place.

Commentators who don’t know their Shakespeare get it wrong:

The amusing context for this interview, was watching Keith Olbermann hoisted on his own petard. –Donklephant, March 15, 2008.

I mean who are the REAL victims here? CBS News has been hoisted on its own petard… –“Cecelia,” commenting on Dan Rather scandal, January 24, 2005.

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10 Responses to “Hoist With His Own Petard”

  • Scott

    I read somewhere that the present tense is “hoise.” Is that not correct?

  • Maeve

    Yes. Shakespeare could have said “hoised,” but preferred “hoist” as the past form.

    In Middle English the present was probably “hysse.”

  • Brad K.

    Oh, is this where ‘heist’ comes from, maybe ‘picked up’?

    “heist (slang) v.t. To steal or rob; — n. A robbing or theft esp. an armed hold up, or a particularly clever or spectacular theft: one who robs or steals — n. heister [Variant of hoist]” – Chambers Dictionary


    My Chamber calls petard (Shakespeare’s ‘petar’) “a case containing explosives, used for blowing in doors, etc.” [from Old French ‘peter’ to crack, explode, from Latin petere, to break wind.]” and refers to hoise.

    Under “hoise (archaic usage)” is the explanation I recall from Junior high, “Hoist with his own petard – blown up with his own explosive, caught in his own trap [Perhaps from Old Dutch hijssen; Dutch hijschen, to hoist]”

    BTW – did ‘ij’ just kind of merge into the modern letter ‘y’?

    And then “hoisting” is Scottish – same as “hosting”. Cool.

  • PreciseEdit

    Naughty Shakespeare.

    Hoist by his own petar = lifted by his own … ah … explosive bodily gasses (presumably: having one’s character revealed by one’s unpleasant deeds; not necessarily: being destroyed by one’s own actions)

    This is much like Olbermann trying to sound smart by using a pseudo Shakespearean quote and then looking a bit silly when people figure out he doesn’t understand the quote.

    Blow them at the moon? One can only shake his head and chuckle.

    Quote usage and phrase usage are as important as word usage. [I see a future topic for our training manual–unless you beat us to it!]

  • Peter

    Brad K.: the letter “y” is originally Greek “υ” (upsilon; capital Υ); it entered Latin through words borrowed from Greek, and other languages from there. Dutch “ij” isn’t related to “y” (though it’s often written joined, like “ÿ”, and some people don’t dot their i’s and j’s)

  • Madolin Wells

    Rosencrantz and Guildestern misspelling: should be Guildenstern.

  • Maeve

    Thanks for the catch on Guildenstern.

  • NLP

    You’re crediting KEITH OLBERMAN with “popularizing” the Shakespearean expression, “hoist by his own petar[d]”?! Hardly. You must either be very young or pay way too much attention to Olberman.

    It has been a well-known phrase for ages, probably ever since 1604 when Shakespeare first said it.

  • js

    This phrase should become even more popular as President Obama’s popularity heads south.

  • Russell Kalvert

    Research potassium nitrate (saltpeter) for the making of gun powder.

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