One of this week’s most popular Words of the Day was the verb penelopize, defined as “to play for time”, or “to procrastinate indefinitely”:
And as some of you clever, clever things rightly surmised over on Twitter, this derives from the character of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.
Penelope was the great hero Odysseus’ undyingly faithful wife, who waited patiently for him to return home from war. As the years passed by, Odysseus was presumed lost in battle—and an ever-growing number of suitors began to show their interest in his apparent widow.
But Penelope was having none of it: she explained to all those who approached her that she would only even begin to consider finding a new husband once she had completed a tapestry (according to some versions of the story, her funeral shroud) on which she was currently painstakingly working.
To ensure that that day never came, however, each night she would unpick her day’s needlework. Ultimately, she would have to redo it the following morning—and put off her suitors for another twenty-four hours at least.
Eventually, Odysseus returned home from war and was reunited with Penelope. Her cunning ploy had not only paid off, but ultimately led to her name becoming a byword for a loyal and ever-faithful wife or partner, a personification of dutiful patience, and inspired the eighteenth century word penelopize.