The Grammarphobia Blog

A hot time next door!

Q: Here’s an unusual word for your consideration: “ucalegon,” a neighbor whose house is on fire. Can you tell me anything about its use and origin?

A: Wow—what a word! I couldn’t find it in any of my modern dictionaries, but it’s in my old Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed., 1954). I’ll copy the entry, which explains its derivation:

“Ucalegon … In Trojan legend, one of the ancient counselors who sat with Priam on the wall. Aeneas speaks of the flames reaching Ucalegon’s house, next to that of Anchises, before he fled from the city. Hence, a next-door neighbor, or a neighbor whose house is on fire.”

The word comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s part of the phrase proximus ardet Ucalegon, meaning Ucalegon burns next. (The house of Ucalegon, an elder of Troy, burned down when the city was sacked, according to Virgil’s account.)

The Latin phrase seems to have been used quite often in the 19th century to refer to a dangerous situation. It was apparently so common at one time that Thomas de Quincey, in his 1849 essay “The English Mail-Coach,” calls the expression trite. It appears in early 20th-century versions of Roget’s Thesaurus (meaning a pitfall or source of danger), but not in modern ones.

Homer’s Iliad, in describing the battle for Troy, mentions Ucalegon only briefly and doesn’t include the fire story. By the way, Ucalegon’s name in the Iliad (usually spelled “Oukalegon” in English) combines the Greek words for “not” and “care.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “ucalegon,” though the word does appear in an early 20th-century citation for the OED’s entry on “neighbor”: “But proximus ardet Ucalegon, which is to say, ‘Don’t care’s house is afire, and his neighbour is quaking.’”

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