The Grammarphobia Blog

In the lap of the gods

Q: In preparing for a trip to Greece, I’ve done a lot of reading about the Greek gods. That got me thinking about the expression “It’s in the lap of the gods.” Why “lap,” not “laps”? Wouldn’t the plural be correct, grammatically speaking?

A: The expression originated in ancient Greek. Homer uses various versions of it in the Odyssey and the Iliad.

In Homeric Greek, “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” literally means “in the knees of the gods.” The reference to “knees” has been translated over the years as “in the knees,” “on the knees,” “in the lap,” and “on the lap.”

For example, A. T. Murray, in his 1919 translation of the Odyssey, renders “θεῶν ἐν γούνασι” in Book 1 as “on the knees of the gods,” while T. E. Lawrence, in his 1932 version, translates it as “on the lap of the Gods.”

As William Seymour Tyler explains in The Theology of Greek Poets (1869), “The men and women of the Iliad and Odyssey are habitually religious” and the “language of religion is often on their tongues.”

“They seem to have an abiding conviction of their dependence on the gods,” he writes. “The results of all actions depend on the will of the gods; it lies on their knees (θεῶν ἐν γούνασι κεἶται, Od. i. 267), is the often repeated and significant expression of their feeling of dependence.”

Today the usual English expression, “in the lap of the Gods,” refers to a situation that one can’t control—something controlled by fate, destiny, providence. The phrase “in the lap” is used here to mean in the care, keeping, or control (a figurative sense of “lap” as a place where a child is held).

Why, you ask, is the English expression “lap of the gods” instead of “laps of the gods”?

First of all, the expression is an idiom. And idioms don’t have to make sense, either literally or grammatically. If they did, one would go to the toolbox rather than the linen closet to make one’s bed.

However, we think the expression does make grammatical sense. When we say “the gods” here, we’re thinking of them as a collective divinity, not individually as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and so on.

The word “lap” has been used figuratively since the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ll skip to this OED example from Shakespeare: “Who are the violets now / That strew the greene lap of the new come spring” (from Richard II, written around 1595).

The dictionary’s first example of “in the lap of the gods” is from the early 20th century: “Perhaps a year—perhaps six months… It is in the lap of the gods” (from Bull-dog Drummond, a 1920 novel written by H. C. McNeile under the pseudonym “Sapper”). The ellipsis is in the novel.

But we found this earlier example in the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette and Advertiser, Aug. 12, 1869: “The future of Cairo is ‘in the lap of the gods.’ ”

And here’s an even earlier example, using “on the lap.” The writer speculates that the papers of Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, might reveal something new about her affair with Lord Byron:

“This among other chances ‘lies on the lap of the gods’; and especially on the lap of a goddess who still treads our earth.” (From Algernon Charles Swinburne’s preface, written in December 1865, to an edition of Byron’s poems that was published the following year. Byron had died in 1824, and the countess lived on until 1873.)

Interestingly, a May 24, 1873, article in the Evening Star, Washington, D.C., published a few weeks after the countess’s death, changes “on the lap” to “in the lap” while misquoting Swinburne: “However, this, like much else besides, lies in the lap of the gods, and especially in the lap of one goddess, who still treads the earth.”

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