With so many politicians getting hoisted by their own petards lately — Spitzer by prostitution and money-laundering investigations, McCain by campaign finance technicalities, etc. — it got me to thinking about just what the heck is a petard anyway.
I turned to the trusty Merriam-Webster online dictionary and saw this interesting entry:
- Main Entry:
- Middle French, from peter to break wind, from pet expulsion of intestinal gas, from Latin peditum, from neuter of peditus, past participle of pedere to break wind; akin to Greek bdein to break wind
- 15981 : a case containing an explosive to break down a door or gate or breach a wall 2 : a firework that explodes with a loud report
In the following passage, the “letters” refer to instructions (written by his uncle Claudius, the King) to be carried sealed to the King of England, by Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the latter being two schoolfellows of Hamlet. The letters, as Hamlet suspects, contain a death warrant against Hamlet, who will later open and modify them to instead request the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Enginer refers to a military engineer.
- There’s letters seal’d: and my two schoolfellows,
- Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
- They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
- And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
- For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
- Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
- But I will delve one yard below their mines
- And blow them at the moon: O, ’tis most sweet,
- When in one line two crafts directly meet.
So to get hoist with one’s own petard is literally to get blown up (hoist into the air) by one’s own bomb. The Wikipedia authors also conclude that Shakespeare was having some fun with the word’s origin: “Also note here, Shakespeare’s probable off-color pun ‘hoisted with his own petar’ (i.e., fart) as reason for the spelling ‘petar’ rather than ‘petard’.”
In conclusion, Eliot Spitzer was blown up by his own fart.