August 27, 2013

Case File #013.08.27: TANTALIZE

According to Greek mythology, King Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus who one day displeased the immortal Olympians—the many versions of the myth differ in the details of the king's offense, though all say it somehow involved food—and received a most apropos punishment for his sin. The gods placed the king in a lake with waters that reached up to his chin and with luscious fruit that hung from branches over his head, but whenever he would attempt to drink or eat, the waters would recede from his lips and the fruit would shrink from his grasp. Thus was Tantulus held in a perpetual state of sensual frustration, and it is from his name that sixteenth-century English speakers derived the verb tantalize, which means “to tease or torment with the promise of something that is difficult to obtain” and “to excite the senses or incite desire.” Reflecting the spirit of the myth even more is the English noun tantalus: clearly a direct borrowing of the mythical king's name, the word was coined in the nineteenth century as the name for a small cabinet or sideboard in which decanters of liquor can be locked out of reach but still remain visible.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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