Putting My Shoulder to the Wheel

Have you ever allowed your curiosity to lead you far, far afield of where it started? I do that quite a lot.  Recently, I heard someone say “I need to put my shoulder to the wheel and get this done.” There’s something about language, especially phrases like that, that I find deeply interesting.   I’d heard the phrase about putting one’s shoulder to the wheel before, of course, but I didn’t know its origin. My curiosity piqued, I went looking.

It didn’t take much to get to Aesop’s fable about Hercules and the Wagoner.

A CARTER was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”

The moral of the story: self-help is the best help.

From there, I decided to explore the meaning of fable.  That led immediately to allegory and then to apologue, which then led to aphorism which led to apothegm which led to adage which led to maxim which led to proverb. And between those, I occasionally got sidetracked.

Somewhere along the line I realized what was happening; I was following language clues through a labyrinth that led me not just to answers, but to more questions and more clues. That, of course, led me to consider the word labyrinth and its meaning.  It didn’t take much to get me to question the word warren, then wonder about a rabbit-warren, then to start thinking about the use of warren to describe over-crowded residential buildings.  And when I pictured overcrowded residential buildings in my mind, I saw what are commonly called tenements. But then, for just a moment, I thought back to the rabbit-warren, and that caused me to remember a birthday card I’d sent to someone recently, you know one of those funny animated electronic birthday cards; this one included the phrase “vampire lesbian bunny rabbit.”

During this process, it occurred to me that I was learning or re-learning quite a bit about words, but some of the meat and potatoes of the context in which I found them was being left in the dust.  For example, at some point in this rather pointless exercise I came across references to Euripides and Aeschylus and Sophocles. Though I have heard the names and may once (long, long, long ago) have known a shred about them, I realized I know almost nothing about them today, other than they wrote tragedies.  I thought to myself, “I really should learn more about them…it’s embarrassing that I don’t know what they wrote and how they influence modern culture.”

My embarrassment led back to this: if I am going to become knowledgeable about the words I just explored and learn about three writers of Greek tragedies, I’d better put my shoulder to the wheel.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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