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Fairy tales and legends can be thought as good bedtime stories for our children. Yet, to learners of English, those stories can also be a good method to remember the meanings of idioms. Just open your Oxford Idioms Dictionary for Learners of English, and you will see it is a real story book for adults.

Achilles' heel:


Achilles, the well-known legendary Greek hero, reminds us of the battle at Troy. Thanks to the magical water at the river Styx, his body is thought to be strong and immune to any injuries except for his heel.  From this legend, Achilles' heel is associated with "a hidden weakness or fault in somebody which may be used to harm them"1.

An Aladdin's cave:


Walt Disney's story of Aladdin and the humorous genie must be familiar to lots of our children. As this story has grown so popular worldwide, its details enter the word list of many languages, including English. The English idiom "an Aladdin's cave" is understood figuratively as "a place full of valuable or interesting objects"2.

Fiddle while Rome burns:


Historically famous stories from ancient Greek culture or Roman culture usually appear in many European languages in various forms. In English, these myths make up the idioms. For instance, Nero, the renowned ambitious and sometimes cruel emperor of Rome, was rumored to burn Rome for his own strategy to gain more power. When Rome was on fire, he was thought to play violin with great calmness. Such indifference is reflected in the idiom "fiddle while Rome burns", which means "do nothing or waste your time when you should be dealing with a dangerous or serious situation"3.

Untie the Gordian knot:


The wits of the ancient kings are always appreciated through the course of time, and Alexander the Great is an example for this. When being asked to untie a tricky knot by King Gordius, King Alexander quickly solved the problem by making a single cut through that knot with his sword. The story has gone into English idiom: when you untie the Gordian knot, you "solve a very difficult or complicated problem with forceful action"4.

Have the Midas touch:


Have you ever heard about a king who could turn everything into gold with just one touch? In ancient Greek legends, King Midas was granted a wish by Dionysus, the Greek god of grape harvest. He finally regretted what he wished for. But nowadays, the idiom "have the Midas touch" has a positive denotation: to have the Midas touch is to "be very successful in making money"5.

Pandora's box


This idiom derives from another Greek legend. Because of her natural curiosity, Pandora, the first woman created by the Greek gods, opened the box that Zeus gave her. Of course she should not have opened it. This legendary box, when left opened, released evil things. Hence, to date, the Pandora's box refers to "a source of great trouble and suffering, although this may not be obvious at the beginning"6.

As rich as Croesus


You might think King Midas was the richest emperor in the ancient Greek thanks to the "golden wish" that Dionysus granted to him. Still, there was another wealthy king in Greece who remains a symbol of wealth nowadays. He was the first king to issue gold coins and blessed by the Greek gods. It may be the gold coin issue that earns this king the title for wealth. When someone is as rich as Croesus, he/she is "extremely rich"7.

Theresa T.
1,2,3,4,5,6,7 Oxford Idioms Dictionary for Learners of English (2001). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 2, 6, 119, 145, 235, 274, 318

Keywords: dich thuat