Knot an Easy Question
By David Allan
David Allan is a former AJR editorial assistant.
A recent Nexis search unearthed more than 120 references to the "Gordian knot" since the beginning of this year. While almost everyone knows that the phrase is used to describe an extremely complicated problem, far fewer know where it comes from.
The Greek myth of King Gordius held that whoever could untie his knot, tied between a pole and the yoke of an ox cart, would rule all of Asia. The prophecy was fulfilled by Alexander the Great, who broke the knot with his sword.
Do all the journalists who mentioned the Gordian knot know that? Not exactly.
"It's sort of a knot that cannot be untangled. I don't have a detailed knowledge of what it is," said Los Angeles Times staffer David Ferrell, who cited a "Gordian knot of colored wires" in a March story about the closing of a police station. "I felt fairly comfortable using it without knowing the full history. I didn't feel I needed to understand the whole mythology of it."
Syndicated columnist Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, who wrote a piece in April about the Gordian knot-like nature of political maneuvering, was not pleased by the inquiry. "Of course I know what it is," he said angrily and hung up. Ten minutes later he called back, apologized for "being curt" and said he believed that the knot referred to the Alexander the Great legend. "That's right isn't it?" he asked.
"It's a classical allusion used in mythology," was all Paul West, Washington bureau chief of Baltimore's Sun, said before turning the questioning around to ask precisely where he had used the phrase. (His reference was in an April story about the latest round of congressional budget battles.) "According to Greek legend, the one who could untie it would be the ruler of Asia," West eventually answered, adding, "I'm reading to you out of the dictionary."
Kandace Bender, political editor of the San Francisco Examiner, also consulted a reference book before answering. "I don't know the origin of it," she admitted. "I think it's from Greek mythology." After looking it up she added proudly, "I was right. I knew it was Greek myth."
Paula Bock, a reporter at the Seattle Times, described a "Gordian knot of a head-ache" in an April story about massage therapy. When pressed for the meaning of the reference, she answered, "In Greek mythology, it was a knot, I believe one of the Herculean tasks." After asking why she was being put on the spot, she asked hopefully, "Did I pass?"
Of the six people questioned, only Richard Simon, a staff writer at the L.A. Times who wrote about California speeding laws as a Gordian knot of controversy in a February story, was able to immediately and accurately recall the Gordian knot legend. "I think in Greek mythology there was a King Gordius [whose knot] could only be undone by the future leader of Asia, and that was Alexander the Great," he said.
But Simon is modest about his acumen. "I was lucky. I studied the classics in college. If it was something else, I might have gotten it wrong," he said.