ENGLISCH/733: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (112) - Achilles heel (SB)


112. Achilles heel?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...Do you think it is true that "Achilles heel" can be used in the figurative sense in English as well as in a lot of other languages to say that something is a vulnerable spot of someone?

Charlotte Fellmer (Stuttgart, Germany)


Dear Ms Fellmer,

... Quite right, the expression "Achilles heel" derives from the old Greek legends. As Greek had great influence in the European culture, the expression is fairly commonly used, but hardly anybody knows the origin and the whole story behind it.

Achilles was the name of a hero in ancient Greek myths. When Achilles was a baby his parents wanted to give him protection. So, they held him by the foot and dipped him in the legendary river of the underworld, Styx. They let the waters of the Styx flow over his body for a moment. So, that whatever he did later in life and particularly in battle he could not be harmed, because of this special protection. There was just one problem. One part of his body was left out: the foot, or more precisely, the heel, because his parents had held him by the heel when they dipped him in the river. So the heel had remained dry. Achilles heel was his weakness. And in the end, he was killed by a poisoned arrow which was shot into his heel.

These days, when we talk about people having an Achilles heel, we indicate that they have a weakness which can be dangerous. For example:

"The cost of the process may prove to be its Achilles heel."

The amount of money one has to pay is the weak spot of the whole process. Something that could bring the whole process to an end. Or another example:

A: "Tom is extremely intelligent and he knows his job very well. It's such a pity that he can't get a better job." B: "Well, he may. Give him time." A: "I doubt it. His police record is his Achilles heel." B: "His police record?" A: "Yes, didn't you know. It was something stupid that he did when he was very young. He stole something from his employer, who was treating him badly. It was really nothing very serious, but the result is, he has got a police record and he will find it very difficult to get a job with any responsibility."

So that police record, resulting from the crime he committed when he was very young is Tom's Achilles heel. It is something that will stop him being as successful in his work as he might have been.

An English synonym, also in the figurative sense would be: a chink in somebody's armour. This means too, that there is an unprotected little spot or weak point in somebody's shield of defence.

Hoping that learning English is not your Achilles heel, you are welcome to write again whenever you feel like it,

Mrs Gobbledygook

May 2nd, 2007