Damocles' Sword

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Also: sword of Damocles

Meaning of Idiom Damocles' Sword

Damocles' sword refers to an impending disaster; a danger or disaster that could occur at any moment. 1,2,3


"Many of us have lived in the shadow of Damocles' sword for decades, knowing that nuclear weapons could be used at any moment."

"Dennis had a cancer scare when he was young. The cancer may have been a misdiagnosis but for him, it became a sword of Damocles."

Damocles' sword painting
Damocles' sword painting


Damocles' sword refers to the Greek legend about King Dionysius I of Syracuse and his courtier, Damocles, who was a person we would refer to today as a brown-noser.

The King had grown weary of Damocles' constant flattery. When Damocles referred to the king as "the happiest of men" the Dionysius decided to teach him a lesson. He invited Damocles to a banquet and ordered him to sit in the same place for the entire event. Over the chair was hung a sword held by a single hair. In this way, the king demonstrated to Damocles just how precarious was the position of a king, who, although he had access to many luxuries and pleasant distractions, always lived in the shadow of fear. 1,4

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
3. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.
4. Westley, Peter Miles. The Bibliophile's Dictionary: 2,000 Masterful Words and Phrases. Writer's Digest, 2005

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