Who wrote "To out-[Person] [Person]"?
December 26, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

A bunch of supposedly literate people at Christmas dinner couldn't decide from what piece of classical English literature we all half-remember the phrase "to out-[Person] [Person]", or "it out-[Person]s [Person]". We were all sure it was from Shakespeare, but a quick regular expression search of Gutenberg found nothing. Can you think of examples of that construction?
posted by nicwolff to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's Hamlet's speech to the Players. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:34 AM on December 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: 'It out-herods Herod" is from Hamlet. Hamlet is warning the players about overacting; Herod as a character in those days was often overdone as a loud ranter.
posted by gubo at 8:34 AM on December 26, 2011

Best answer: Specifically, the Herod character in medieval mystery plays.
posted by holgate at 8:40 AM on December 26, 2011

Some people, when confronted with a problem, think "I know, I'll use regular expressions." Now they have two problems.

On a more serious note, how are you searching PG? Your regexp can probably be tweaked to find this particular match, and possibly turn up others - try something like /out-[a-z]([a-z]+)s?\s+.\g1/i.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:52 AM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

The construction turns up in the stage version of A Christmas Story as well, when Mrs. Shields says Ralphie's theme "Out-Shakespeares Shakspeare"
posted by EatTheWeek at 10:01 AM on December 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. (Sadly, this is the answer my sister claims to have supplied last night...)

Dr Dracator, I just grabbed the whole corpus and threw it at Perl. I had variations on /\bout-(\w+).?s \1\b/i – maybe I forgot the i? Don't regex drunk!
posted by nicwolff at 11:15 AM on December 26, 2011

A quote from Fowler's Modern English Usage may not come amiss:
In view of the phrase's great popularity & many adaptations, two cautions are perhaps called for. The noun after out-herod should be Herod & nothing else (the OED quotes 'out-heroding the French cavaliers in compliment'; cf. Ecclesiastical functionaries who out-heroded the Daughters of the Horse-leech), &, after adaptations like out-milton & out-nero, Milton &c. should be repeated (out-zola Zola, not out-zola the realists). Secondly, the name used should be one at least that passes universally as typifying something; to out-kautsch Kautsch [...] is very frigid.
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on December 26, 2011

Well, since the question's been answered... it's also, incidentally, the title of an excellent poem by Anthony Hecht.
posted by johnofjack at 5:22 PM on December 26, 2011

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