Learn English – Why “hoist” in “Hoist with one’s own petard”


He was hoist with his own petard is one of my father's favorite phrases. As a child I had developed a vague understanding of the idiom in which petard was a kind of flag, which is why it was hoist, and being hoist by your own was an unpleasant fate bringing to mind captains being hung from their own ship's mast.

I now understand the meaning and origin of the phrase much better and know that a petard was a kind of early bomb and the idiom refers to being injured or killed by your own bomb. I am wondering about hoist though.

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that in this expression, hoist is a past participle. What confuses me is the usage. We would not use hoist to describe being thrown by a bomb today, it brings to mind a controlled movement and does not carry any connotations of speed or violence, quite the contrary:

v. hoist·ed, hoist·ing, hoists v.tr.
1. To raise or haul up with or as if with the help of a mechanical apparatus. See Synonyms at lift.
2. To raise to one's mouth in order to drink: hoist a few beers. v.intr. To become raised or lifted.

My question is whether hoist used to have such a connotation. Since the phrase can be traced to Hamlet, was this poetic license or was the word commonly used to describe such violent movement at the time? Did to be hoist mean to die or be injured?

Best Answer

Hoist is the past participle of the now-obsolete verb hoise. Hoise simply meant "to raise with effort or exertion". Today the verb hoist implies the use of ropes and some control, but that wasn't necessarily the case in Shakespeare's day. However, OED gives hoist with his own petard its own entry, which does indicate that Shakespeare coined this particular use.

1. trans. To raise aloft by means of a rope or pulley and tackle, or by other mechanical appliance.
a. orig. Naut., and chiefly to hoise sail; often with up.
b. to hoise out (forth): to launch, lower (a boat).
c. In other than nautical use. [For example, to hoyse up to a gibet. (1573)]
2. a. to raise aloft, lift up, usually with the notion of exertion.
b. hoist with his own petard (Shakespeare): Blown into the air by his own bomb; hence, injured or destroyed by his own device for the ruin of others.
3. To raise in position, degree or quality; to exalt, elevate; to raise in price.
4. To lift and move; to remove.