How to remember the difference between a Sisyphean, Promethean, and Herculean task

4 Aug

If there’s one thing beginning English speakers tend to confuse, it’s the proper use of Sisyphean, Promethean, and Herculean.

In fact, aside from nonsensical verb tenses and a bewildering number of idioms, the proper use of these adjectives derived from ancient Greek mythology is a source of almost daily frustration.

For example, let’s say you just hired an illegal Mexican immigrant to remove a giant concrete volcano from your backyard. You don’t have any dynamite or even a sledgehammer, so you hand him a couple of steak knives.

“Senor, smashy this here concreto into little chunkitos,” you tell him.

He looks at you. He seems confused. He points at the concrete and then at the steak knives. He shakes his head.

“They’re very sharp,” you tell him. “They’re Wusthof.”

“This strikes me as a rather Sisyphean task,” he says.

You start laughing so hard Budweiser comes out your nose. You turn to your buddies who are losing it, too. You laugh for a good two minutes, then turn back to your Mexican: “Sorry, buddy. I think what you meant was Herculean.”

“If you guys are gonna to come to America,” says your buddy Tim, poking his index finger into the Mexican’s nose. “You need to speak American.”

Another example: Let’s say you’re 93 years old and dying of liver cancer. Your faithful barber-surgeon Nancy Antennas – who immigrated from Lithuania in 1922 – is about to transplant part of his own liver into you. At your request, he agrees to perform the surgery in the aviary, among your prized collection of Prussian eagles. Unfortunately, just as he slips his liver out of his body, your beloved Lord Vishnu swoops down and snatches the liver from his grasp.

“Aw, dang,” he says. “I knew this would be a Herculean task.”

“Have I taught you nothing, sweet Nancy?” you say. “Twas a Promethean task, for it ended with an eagle eating your liver.”

So, to recap for all you non-English speakers:

Sisyphean: any task that is thankless, repetitive and never-ending

Herculean: any task that is generally impossible and never-ending

Promethean: any task that ends with an eagle eating your liver

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2 Responses to “How to remember the difference between a Sisyphean, Promethean, and Herculean task”

  1. Giselle March 2, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    I had that liver thing happen to me once and I have to tell you, I really appreciate the clarification. You truly are a genius Matthew and I love you.

  2. Christian December 8, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Disagree. Hercules eventually completed his labors.

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