Monday, January 23, 2012

Conspicuous By Its Absence

Et Tu, Brute!
Do you every wonder where a particular phrase originated? I can actually hear you nodding. One of those phrases is "conspicuous by its absence." So I looked it up. According to Brush Up Your Classics by Michael Macrone (a book I picked up from a remainder table), it goes back to Imperial Rome. It has been attributed to the Roman Chronicler Tacitus in a description of the funeral of Junia Tertulla, the sister of Marcus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar's assassins, and the wife of Cassius, Brutus's co-conspirator.

"Though she died sixty-three years after Marc Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 44 B.C., her relatives' crimes had not been forgotten. The emperor Tiberius, a rather touchy individual, might have been expected to bear a grudge because his stepfather was Caesar Augustus, Julius's nephew. But in rare show of restraint, Tiberius allowed Junia a ceremonial funeral." Among the statues lining the funeral route, conspicuous by their absence were monuments of her brother and husband.

British Prime Minister John Russell used the phrase in his 1859 address to the Electors of the City of London. He was referring to a provision lacking in a reform bill. O'Henry used it as well, and if you care, so have I.

So there you have it. Mystery solved!


  1. Mary, I have never heard that saying before. (Where have I been)? However, I do love researching idioms and finding their origin. When I was teaching, one of the novels taught was Of Mice and Men. Since the book has an abundance of idioms, we would talk about them and their origins. The students seemed to enjoy that. We would then connect it to idioms we use today and so on.

  2. I have heard it, but not frequently - good to know the origins. The phrase I love to use, and have no clue where or why it originated, is "Quiet as Grant's tomb" ... a friend and I got into quite the lively conversation one day, wondering if Grant's tomb is oddly louder or quieter than any other person's tomb :o)

  3. Jakki, I love getting to the root of an idiom. Some of them just don't make any sense to modern ears.

    Rebecca, I wonder if it's b/c it's somewhat out of the way in Riverside Park. I don't think many people visit it. I lived outside NYC for 25 years, and I never did. I know that the Grants' descendants threatened to move Julia and Ulysses's bodies back to Ill. if the city didn't take better care of the tomb.

    1. By the way, I'm Historians. I don't know where that tag came from. I used to be Mary Simonsen:)

  4. I love getting to the bottom of etymology for both words and phrases. I've read this phrase used in several mysteries and its nice to know to what it originally referred.

  5. Thanks for tracing the history on this! I am fascinated by the way our expressions have developed.

  6. Great lesson - it is always fun to learn where idioms originate. My son, Howie, almost 11 asks me where some originate, and usually, I have to look them up.

    Last week, I said, 'This radio is as worthless as tits on a boar.' Howie said, 'Mom - where did that come from? ' I said, 'Your grandpa.' Got to love those agricultural quips!

  7. Sophia, Maria and Angie, So I'm not alone in wondering where all these things originated! That's fun to know.

    Angie, The first time I heard the boar expression, I didn't get it. Dyed in the wool suburbanite.