It’s All an Allusion

NO, that wasn’t a typo. Allusions can be elusive, but they’re not illusionary.

An allusion is an indirect reference. To allude to something is to hint to it. Allusions can be evocative shortcuts to ideas. They may be historical — like someone “meeting his Waterloo,” a reference to the defeat of Napoleon. Or they may be literary — like calling a fatal weakness an “Achilles’ heel.”

(Talking about allusions and heels, one night I met a friend coming from the opposite direction. Both of us were hobbling along with foot issues. I shook my head and told him, “We’re like shleps passing in the night.”)

When I wrote about Hamodia’s strict standards of appropriate language, I alluded to a famous ad for kosher hot dogs that claimed they were more than just government-inspected: “We answer to a higher authority.”

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” — don’t trust a kindness from an enemy — is an allusion to the myth of the “Trojan Horse.” In the story of the Trojan War, the Greek army pretended to retreat. But they left a gift — a giant wooden horse — at the city gates of Troy. But the horse was filled with Greek soldiers who, after gaining entry, opened the gates to the returning army and destroyed Troy.

Sometimes, like inside jokes, allusions can be the curse of cleverness. Eric Partridge (Usage and Abusage) pointedly asked, “Is literary allusion a form of snobbery or is it not rather — in the scholarly and the unpretentiously cultured, the genuinely well-read — a legitimate source of pleasure and a kind of subtlety?”

Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern English Usage) advised a judicious balance. “Ideally, the words in an allusion flatter those who recognize it while not bothering those who don’t.”

Getting or not getting an allusion is unrelated to intelligence. James Thurber said that Harold Ross, the founder and editor of The New Yorker, was “unembarrassed by his ignorance of … great novels.” Once, Ross “stuck his head into the checking department of the magazine and asked, ‘Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?’”

Like metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, allusions play off symbolic, rather than literal, meaning.

But, as the Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher (The Unfolding of Language) warned, even as the “sturdiest of words are swept along … carried towards abstract meanings,” they can become “bleached of their original vitality and turn into pale lifeless terms for abstract concepts.” Ultimately, “the structure of language grows, as a reef of dead metaphors.”

All languages are aggregates of arbitrary sounds that enough people agreed on. All languages but one, that is. Lashon haKodesh — the Holy Tongue, Hebrew — is the language of Creation. It was not created by man. It has no dead metaphors.

While you mull that over, pull up a chair and let me tell you a story.

About 15 years ago my wife and I took our grandchildren to a Jewish music festival in Beit Shemesh. It was, as people of my generation used to say, far out. Billowing smoke and flashing lights enveloped the stage. The pounding rhythm and blaring guitars provided a backdrop to a carnival of cotton candy, glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and crafts. My grandson Avi was about 6. But he was on cloud nine.

It was easy to keep track of Avi because of his squeak. He used to talk with a charming squeak that intensified when he got excited. (I thought of WD-40, but that’s not one of its recommended uses.)

The next day, I asked Avi, “Did you enjoy the music?” He went wide-eyed and squeaked, “There was music?!”

So why am I telling you this?

I rarely wear T-shirts. Not that I’m such a formal guy. It’s just that, given my girth, T-shirts don’t bring out the best in me. However, I still have the T-shirt I bought that night at the festival. The design alluded to an ad for Carlsberg beer — the one that said “Carlsberg — Probably the best beer in the world.” The shirt copied the design of the ad, but it said, “Carlebach — Probably the best rebbe in the world.”

From the facetious to the sublime, a friend of mine was close with Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l. Once, while they were talking, someone called to inquire about a young man in the yeshivah for a possible match. Rav Aharon answered that the young man was “as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate.”

My friend ran out of the room laughing. He knew that Rav Aharon relied on the caller’s only being familiar with the custom of eating pomegranates the night of Rosh Hashanah as a symbol “to increase our merits like a pomegranate’s seeds.” The caller was likely unaware of the Gemara (Brachos 57a) that refers to “even the emptiest of Jews being as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”

When my friend came back into the room, Rav Aharon, still chuckling, said, “What’s the matter? Fuhn a gutte vort ken kein shlechts nisht aroiskumen — Nothing bad can come from a good word.”

Cartoons often play off allusions. A “Bizarro” cartoon by Dan Piraro showed a huge wooden structure outside the gates of a walled city. Only it wasn’t a giant wooden horse. It was a giant wooden pig.

Two guards stood peering over the wall at the pig. And one said,

“I dunno. Something about it doesn’t seem kosher.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to