Challenging Word of the Week: petard


(pi TARD) n.

A petard was a heavy explosive engine of war, filled with gunpowder and fastened to gates to blow them in or to walls, barricades, etc., to smash them and form a breach. The soldier whose job it was to fire the device was always in danger of blowing himself up as well, in which case he would wind up hoist with his own petard. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III, scene 4) the prince says to the queen:

…’tis the sport to have the engineer

Hoist with his own petar…

But I will delve one yard below their mines,

And blow them at the moon.

(Shakespeare spelt it petar, possibly influenced by the French pronunciation of petard in which the -d is silent.) Hamlet was speaking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, commissioned by King Claudius to escort him to England and see to his death; but as the play develops, it is they who will be done in, and thus hoist with their own petard. To be thus hoist is to be caught in the trap laid for someone else. This was indeed the fate of certain inventors of torture devices and dreadful places of imprisonment, like the Bastille built by Hugh Aubriot, Provost of Paris c. 1360, where he was the first to be imprisoned. In the Book of Esther 7:9 Haman was hanged on the high gallow he had devised for the hanging of Mordecai, and the witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, tried for witchcraft under the rules he had set up, was himself executed as a wizard in 1647. Petard has an amusing derivation: via Middle French petard, related to peter (to fart), from the Latin peditum (breaking wind), neuter form of peditus, past participle of pedere (to fart). In this age of jet propulsion, doesn’t that derivation give hoist with one’s own petard a new twist?

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House.

My example: The Democrats may have been hoist with their own petard in 2004 when they turned the Wellstone funeral into a campaign rally.

I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it.

7 thoughts on “Challenging Word of the Week: petard

  1. There seem to be numerous corruptions, where hoist on or hoist upon are used as well. I’ve never heard petard used without hoist. You could just use Proverbs 26:27, but the Shakespeare reference is more poeticky-like and all.

  2. Couldn’t someone or something be as welcome as a petard in church? A bad movie could be a petard at the box office. Fahrenheit 911 made too much money to be a petard, though it is full of canards, another great word. However, if the Dems let the Moore/Dean/Moveon left be the face of their party the strategy will likely hoist them by their petards.

  3. In response to Jeff’s question, sort of. Petard is common French slang for a joint, which ties in quite nicely with your previous post. This was a good one John.

  4. Let us hope the same thing happens to the Dems as a result of the latest string of “eulogies”/pot shots at the president.

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