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Warren Clements: Word Play

Robin Hood: the new toxic avenger? Add to ...

As a DVD reviewer, I am preparing for this month's home-video release of Ridley Scott's movie Robin Hood. As a Word Play columnist, I have observed the widespread metaphorical use of "toxic." Surely, for the sake of efficiency, there must be a way to combine the two topics.

In olden days - not as olden as Robin Hood, but back before the 1990s - toxic was pretty much relegated to descriptions of fumes, dumps and nerds transformed by nuclear waste into hideous-looking avengers.

Now, when even The Toxic Avenger (lovingly called "Toxie" by Lloyd Kaufman, producer of the 1985 gorefest) has been turned into a musical, toxic has been domesticated. Any social interaction that takes a bad turn qualifies for the adjective. Romance is toxic. Lovers are toxic. Bachelors are toxic if, according to Britain's Independent on Sunday in 2002, they are cut from the same cloth as "the cad, the rake, the bounder and the ladykiller."

A letter to the October issue of Elle Canada (yes, it's still September, but magazines love to embrace the future) says: "Mother-daughter relationships can be tense, but that doesn't make them toxic." The adjective is thrown at men (headline on an advice column: "Toxic boyfriend must improve or move") and at women ("grubby, self-centred Jess attaches himself to Elena, a toxic girlfriend who's engaged to Gail"). A 1993 Los Angeles Daily News article applied it to a sportscaster's hair: "Just please don't throw gum into that Lampley toxic hairdo or the fire marshals might close down the show."

Even pleasure can qualify if someone feels guilty enough. A 2001 Daily Telegraph article recommended "healthy whole foods as a rest from the toxic pleasures of city life."

It's just a matter of time before, like wicked, ill and sick, toxic is twisted into an adjective of approval ("Your car is toxic, dude"). In a world where Poison has been the name of a perfume and Death a brand of cigarettes, subversion is everything.

Toxic entered English in the 1660s with the meaning of poisonous, and derived from the medieval Latin toxicus, from the classical Latin toxicum, meaning poison. That in turn derived from the Greek toxikon pharmakon, a phrase constructed from pharmakon, which oddly enough meant poison, and toxikos, which meant pertaining to the bow in a bow and arrow. And who later used bows and arrows? Robin Hood. I rest my case.

The Greeks' expression reflected their habit of smearing poison on the end of their arrows as a battle tactic, and if you have any complaints about that, write to the Greeks, not to me. Later borrowers of the phrase dropped the pharmakon, mistakenly assuming that toxikon meant poison, and the rest is history.

As an aside, although the Romans used X to mean 10, they initially had no letter, X or otherwise, to represent the "ks" or "eks" sound. It was only around the first century BC, when they started importing words like toxikon from the Greeks, that they were forced to borrow the X from the Etruscans in northern Italy, who had borrowed it from the inhabitants of western Greece, who drew their X the way you see it today, unlike the other Greeks, who drew it as three horizontal lines with or without a vertical stake running through the middle.

It is best not to confuse toxin with tocsin, which means an urgent signal given with a bell, deriving from the Provençal word tocasenh, a compound of tocar (strike) and senh (bell). Tocar is linked to the Vulgar Latin toccare, which meant to hit and was probably onomatopoeic, imitating the "toc" sound that occurs when somebody hits something. That's why English represents the sound of a clock as "tick tock," which is not to be confused with Tuck, who was part of Robin Hood's gang.

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