It is probably beyond reasonable expectation to think that educated people in the 21st Century are even dimly aware of the culture they supposedly inherit.
But they should not wantonly toss around allusions when they have no concept of the origin.
Two examples in the last several days have popped up where the unknown origin of an allusion has rendered a main topic either confusing or silly.
Both refer to the a 19th century poetic line about "the love that dare not speak its name."
First example comes from the New York Times, bearing the title "The Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name." The author, Lisa Schwarzbaum, starts by describing a Woody Allen product about a woman who went from being married and rich to becoming single and so destitute that she ends up on the streets.
The author discusses how it left her fearful of the same fate and with affected smartness exclaims "There but for the grace of a Chanel jacket go I."
She goes on to hazily describe feminism, marrying men, wanting to be independent yet taken care of. Typical New York Times pseudo social commentary.
Second example comes by way of the Daily Caller. The writer of the story is not the culprit here. She describes the talk of a Cold War policy maker who argues for resurrecting the old doctrine of "containment" against Iran.
He calls containment the "strategy that dare not speak its name."
And now why these allusions are so bizarre.
In the 1890s, Britain's most talked about trial was the libel suit of Oscar Wilde against the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde had apparently grown smitten with a younger fellow poet, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde and Douglas excited gossip as they became friends, traveled together, and seemed pretty much inseparable. Lost letters from Wilde to Douglas fell into the hands of a blackmailer.
Rumors around the pair also reached Douglas' father, the aforementioned Marquess of Queensberry, better known for formulating rules of amateur boxing.
The libel suit against Queensberry broke down so completely that evidence given to prove his innocence also seemed to damn Wilde as a violator of the "gross indecency" statute that outlawed homosexuality. During one of Wilde's criminal trials, the prosecutor quoted from a poem by Lord Douglas.
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasent realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.'
The prosecutor seized upon the last line, asking Wilde to explain it. Despite his classically referenced answer, ever since the trial, the phrase has been used to refer to homosexual relations.
So therein lies the reason why the first example is so off base and the second is downright bizarre. Making allusions to well stated quotations from the past can liven up prose or speech. But those who use them without understanding their origin risk looking silly.