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Sisyphean

This term for a task that is endless and ineffective comes straight out of Greek myth.

Sisyphus was a king of Corinth, a son of Aeolus (the ruler of the winds, hence our word aeolian for something produced by or borne on the wind). In later legend he was the father of Odysseus or Ulysses. His name actually meant “crafty” in Greek: he was noted for his deception and he’s the equivalent in Greek folklore of the master trickster who turns up in many folk beliefs, such as Coyote in American Indian mythology. He even managed to cheat Death the first time around, surviving the experience to live to a ripe old age.

In Greek legend Sisyphus was punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life by being condemned eternally to roll a heavy stone up a hill. As he neared the top, the stone rolled down again, so that his labour was everlasting and futile.

The word first appeared in English in the middle of the seventeenth century. It isn’t used so much these days because so few people understand the reference to classical literature but this is one example:

Should one come to pass, getting the Irish to say yes to anything proposed by the EU could prove a Sisyphean task.

The Christian Science Monitor, 13 Dec. 2011.

Page created 3 Apr. 1999

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-sis1.htm
Last modified: 3 April 1999.