15 Sep /14


Greek and Roman myths and the many words associated with them came into the English language as a result of translation. The Renaissance was a time when the classics were rediscovered and this revolution of thought also fed its way into the English language.

Tantalus annoyed the Greek gods. As a punishment he was sent to the equivalent of hell. There he stood in a pool of water with delicious fruit above his head. When he bent over to get a drink, the water receded. When he tried to pick the fruit, the branches moved back. This later became a tantalizing experience. The object of desire was so close, but there was never any satisfaction.

The first reference in English was in one of Chaucer’s first works – The Book of the Duchess (1369).. Again and again Chaucer refers to suffering and grief. The result is that “I have more sorrow than Tantalus”.  The tantalizing experience of the fruit almost in the mouth and then quickly withdrawn is the punishment for greed which is described by John Gower in Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins (1390), the suffering in hell called “the woeful pain of Tantalus”

It was only 200 years later than tantalizing appeared as a verb. Robert Tofte, translator and poet, a contemporary of Shakespeare and the first man to quote him in print. He talks of being tantalized by his lover. And it was another 200 years before tantalizing was used in normal language without reference to Tantalus. James Cook writes that he would have been tantalized if he could only have looked at a city and not enter it while the Duke of Wellington was also tantalized by the enemy being so close and he not being able to attack.