Shooting the messenger

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The phrase “killing the messenger” has had a long run in this old world. It goes back to the Greeks as so many of our words and sayings do, this particular one from Plutarch: “The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

We’re all aware that this reaction is still with us and our politicians.

A few years later, six or seven hundred years after Plutarch, Shakespeare brings up shooting-the messenger via Cleopatra, when her messenger tells her that her lover Anthony has taken a bride. So annoyed is Cleo at the messenger for telling her news she doesn’t care to hear that she says to the lowly fellow, “I’ll unhair thy head!”

Really, Cleopatra, how unfair can a girl get? But what a delightful thing your creator had you utter. I wish I’d paid attention when I had to read your play so that I could have kept this line handy for apt occasions – “I’ll unhair thy head!” for an overly zealous date, perhaps. (Would it have been better to unhair him in the moment or call him out 40 years later? I think both.)

Shooting the messenger may be a time-honored reaction to unwelcome news, but it’s not a promising idea if you need the facts to carry on with whatever your business is. In what we call civilized society it’s now a mere metaphor, not an act, and it’s generally politicians bemoaning some scandalous act out of their past who yell at reporters; the closest they come to “shooting the messenger” is suing the messenger, which if they win can kill somebody’s job or bankrupt his newspaper. Most of us just yell the phrase, however, and only a few sue at the drop of an ugly truth.

The advice “Don’t shoot the messenger” appears in Henry IV, Part 2. Reporters, including me, mutter this line quite a bit these days.

We’ve all wished we had the perfect riposte for news besmirching our character or hurting our pride or position in life. All of us know of things we’d rather not hear, but at the least, our disgust can be something more original than “I’ll sue.” Up to this point, I’ve used my standard “You’re such a doorknob.” Now I’ll be able to say something a little stronger, the apt metaphor, the verbal form of scalping — “I’ll unhair thy head!”

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