Fairy tales give rise to colorful turns of phrase

"Cinderella story" has referred to a rags-to-riches arc since the mid-19th century. It's a made-up phrase – but we all know what it means.


When the James Webb Space Telescope launches Dec. 18, it will investigate the atmospheres of faraway planets that orbit their stars in what scientists call the “Goldilocks zone.” Astrobiologists theorize that planets in this zone – “where it is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist,” according to NASA’s website – have the greatest chance of harboring life. 

The term, of course, comes from the familiar fairy tale in which Goldilocks breaks into the Three Bears’ house and eventually finds a chair, a meal, and a bed that are “just right.” Because so many of us know the fairy tale, we understand what a Goldilocks zone must be, and the term sticks in the mind in a way that its synonym, “circumstellar habitable zone,” does not.  

Fairy tales have given English many other evocative words. Cinderella story has referred to a rags-to-riches arc since the mid-19th century. When a “poor Boston girl” met and married the king of Portugal, a Kansas newspaper reported in 1899, it was “the most brilliant alliance ever contracted by an American woman” and “a Cinderella story.” Today, Cinderellas are more likely to be underdog sports figures who win against the odds than women of modest backgrounds marrying up. During the NCAA basketball tournament, for example, sports writers vie to identify the Cinderellas that might be able to upset higher seeds, and make listicles of “The 11 greatest March Madness Cinderella stories.” 

Cinderella had a fairy godmother, and from the mid-19th century, the term was applied to “a person who comes to the aid of someone in difficulty, a benefactress.” Cinderella had a Prince Charming, too, and he also made his way into popular discourse around 1850. These terms did not originate with the story of Cinderella, however, but in the tales of French author Madame D’Aulnoy, who wrote a series of bestselling books in the late 17th century. In her “The Blue Bird,” a Cinderella-esque character, Florine, and King Charming fall in love, but the ugly stepsister’s fairy godmother punishes him by turning him into the blue bird of the title. That these terms appear in English in the mid-19th century is no accident – fairy tales were on the minds of Victorian readers because of the success of the Brothers Grimm, whose 1857 collection of German fairy tales was for some years second only to the Bible in terms of copies sold, according to historian Jack Zipes.

Though the Brothers Grimm are better known, Madame D’Aulnoy gave the genre its name. She called her stories contes des fées, and English speakers have been enjoying the happily ever after of fairy tales ever since.   

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