Tilting at windmills

I love coincidences!

At the moment I’m reading both Porter’s Madness: A Brief History, and Don Quixote. I was deeply ensconced in the Porter when I came across the expression “tilting at windmills,” and realised that, while I’d heard it many times before and vaguely understood its meaning (to do something futile,) I had no idea of its origin. My curiousity piqued, I plugged it into our all-knowing (and increasingly sinister) friend Google and discovered it was a reference to Quixote!

It turns out that “tilting” is an old-fashioned word for “jousting,” and that there is a famous part of Cervantes’ tale in which Quixote foolishly jousts against an army of windmills.

Even more interesting is that, while expression “luchar contra molinos de viento” does exist, its first idiomatic use seems to have been in English rather than in Spanish. It was being commonly employed in English language newspapers by the 1880s, but the first use in Spanish in the Real Academia Española’s corpus (a tool I am totally in love with) is in a 1984 article in the newspaper El País. A search of Google’s archives reveals just one previous appearance, in 1931. In other words, an expression with its origins in THE classic of Spanish literature is a back-translation from English!

The things you discover when you put your detective hat on…


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