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Posted by ESC on November 10, 2000

In Reply to: Need help on English homework!!! posted by Jamie on November 10, 2000

: Hi... my name is Jamie and I need to find out where the following quotes originated and what they mean:

: Big brother is watching you
: Bread and circuses
: Brer Rabbit
: Brevity is the soul of wit
: Brown vs. Board of Education (Brown decision)
: Building castles in the air

: If anyone would be so kind as to help, it would be grately appreciated.
: Thanks a bunch!!!

I have listed the sources at the end of each explanation.

1. Big brother is watching you - This phrase is from a book - it's a literary allusion. It means, "An all-powerful government or organization monitoring and directing people's actions. Big Brother was the Stalin-like dictator of George Orwell's vision of the future in his 1949 novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four'." From "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions" by Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber (Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Mass., 1999).

2. Bread and circuses - It means distracting people with food and entertainment (bread and circuses/popcorn and movies) so they won't notice the things that are really wrong. It's kind of like distracting a baby with a bottle and a rattle. The expression comes from an ancient Roman saying. "A pallative offered especially to avert potential discontent. Public spectacles or entertainments distract the public from important issues and may alleviate discontent in the short run, but neither provides fundamental solutions. The term comes from the work of the Roman satirist Juvenal (ca. A.D. 60-140), who wrote: Duas tantum res anxius optat/Panem et circenses.(The people) long eagerly for two things/Bread and circuses." From "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions" by Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber (Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Mass., 1999).

3. Brer Rabbit -- Brer Rabbit is a character in stories written by Joel Chandler Harris in the 1800s. Harris, who was white, became acquainted with the slaves on a plantation near his Georgia home, according to The World Book Encyclopedia. "From 1876 to 1900, Harris wrote for The Atlanta Constitution (a newspaper), in which his first Uncle Remus stories appeared. He later collected the stories in book form as "Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings'." His characters included Uncle Remus, a former slave who entertains a young boy with his stories about Brer Rabbit and others. Disney's "Song of the South" is based on Harris' stories. One story is about how Brer Rabbit is caught by Mr. Fox but tricks Mr. Fox into throwing him into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit pretends he is afraid of the briar patch so Fox throws him in. The briar patch is Brer Rabbit's home so he quickly gets away from Fox. An important note: some people don't like the Uncle Remus stories because they think they represent racist stereotypes. You can read more about the Uncle Remus stories at

4. Brevity is the soul of wit - This expression is from Hamlet (Act 2, scene 2, 86-92) by William Shakespeare. The speaker is Polonius. Shakespeare is making a joke by having Polonius say this line since Polonius is neither witty or brief. He is a silly chatterbox. "Besides being nonsensical, (Polonius') speech is self-contradictory: he wastes plenty of time denouncing the time wasted by rhetorical speechifying. 'Brevity is the soul of wit' has become a standard English proverb; in the process, its context has been somewhat neglected. Polonius, though he has high opinions indeed of his 'wit', is the least brief and one of the least 'witty' characters in the play." From "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare" by Michael Macrone (Random House, New York, 1990).

5. Brown vs. Board of Education (Brown decision) - This was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said black and white children could go to school together. "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. The court's 1954 decision overruled its 1896 ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The earlier decision upheld the constitutionality of separate but equal facilitates for blacks and whites." From The World Book Encyclopedia.

6. Building castles in the air - This expression means day dreaming impossible (or unlikely) dreams. The saying came ".from the French 'un chateau en Espagne' (a castle in Spain) in about 1400, which later became 'castles in the air.' French dreamers had been building castles in far off Spain or 'Albanie' or 'Asie' since the 11th century, when a poem called 'The Roumant of the Rose' introduced the French phrase into English: 'Thou shalt make castels thanne in Spayne, And dream of Ioye all in vayne.'" From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)