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Is there a single word to describe an object or idea that is so desirable that everyone wants to attain it but once they have it they are immediately cursed?

The idea is often used in literature—some examples:

  • In Lord of the Rings, the 'one ring' is a perfect example of this.
  • In Guy de Maupassant's story The Necklace, the necklace might be considered to be this.
  • There are many stories of people making deals with the devil (see question: What does "Faustian bargain" mean?), or being granted three wishes by a Djinn or fairy, which inevitably turn out bad.
  • In the Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last, Bemis's desire to be left alone with his books would be an example of this word.

'Bane' covers the cursed part, but no one desires it. Is there a single word to describe a most highly desired treasure that (knowingly or unknowingly) comes with a curse?

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Good question, I must say. Reverse dictionaries are not very helpful, returning desideratum, king's ransom, Fafnir, modern orthodox Judaism, and Mel Fisher. –  RegDwigнt Feb 15 '11 at 17:06
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@RegDwight: ha! :-) ‘Fafnir’ points out another classic example, though: the cursed Rhine-gold, in the Nibelungenlied, Wagner’s Ring, etc. –  PLL Feb 15 '11 at 18:28
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It's kind of reminiscent of the "monkey's paw". –  Andrew Grimm Feb 15 '11 at 22:08
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The one you used cursed treasure –  mplungjan Feb 16 '11 at 6:38
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I can't think of a good word, but a good metaphor could be a light to a moth. :) –  kitukwfyer Mar 24 '11 at 4:50

12 Answers 12

up vote 13 down vote accepted
+100

I can find plenty of other examples for such objects but most of them revolve around a character's inability to resist the object more than the object's desirability. The best example I found was the lure of immortality.

As far as terms go, the best I could do was honeypot and bug zapper. The latter is a perfect description of such an object but isn't very cool sounding and only really applies to things attracted to light. A more romantic twist brings us to limerence which is defined as:

An involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction for another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one's feelings reciprocated.

I find the idea of focusing such an attraction on an object instead of a romantic partner useful and would be happy with a word such as "limerent" for the appropriate noun. Unfortunately, the desired reciprocation implied by limerence is completely irrelevant in this context so it -- although interesting -- is unable to satisfy the need.

Other words that seem intwined with this concept are paradox and fated. Paradox because of the crazy, irrational pull of the object even after the curse is discovered. (This is one of the problems with honeypot: The curse is hidden.) Fated is apt due to the irresistibility of the object along with its implied horrid ending.

Two-word terms seem to be a little easier to find as you can simply prepend cursed, malevolent or insatiable to words such as lure or attractor. (Or honeypot.)

In other words, this is a most excellent question.

Edit:

I remembered the word gambit which is defined as

An opening in chess, in which a minor piece (often a pawn) is sacrificed to gain an advantage.

The term's usage extends to include nearly any strategy that sacrifices something to gain something else and is generally considered extremely high risk with unpredictable outcomes. This usage note is helpful:

Critics familiar with the nature of chess gambits have sometimes maintained that the word should not be used in an extended sense except to refer to maneuvers that involve a tactical sacrifice or loss for some advantage.

The note continues by reminding us that "gambit" is fully excepted as general ploy or maneuver. But the sacrificial aspect is what makes it useful in this context.

The word is, again, not a perfect match but it completely conveys the dual attraction and potential danger. It also has the advantage that people will know exactly what you are referring to if you say, "Eve's gambit" or "the immortality gambit." You can stretch the term to refer to nearly every obvious example:

  • Eve's gambit
  • the immortality gambit
  • the Midas gambit
  • the djinn or genie gambit
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2  
+1 for the only (serious) single-word answers. –  Callithumpian Mar 29 '11 at 21:57
    
@Calli: Thanks. I was severely disappointed that limerence was so close but so far away. At least I learned a great new word. –  MrHen Mar 29 '11 at 22:29
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I love the new word 'limerence' and have selected this answer because of that. In addition, because 'limerence' was only coined in 1977, I propose a new noun 'limerant' (with an 'a') to describe an object that does not reciprocate the desire or affection given to it. –  oosterwal Mar 31 '11 at 14:41
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(+1) Honeypot seems like the best answer, though I think there probably isn't a single answer to cover the whole point. Well done for a well researched response, @MrHen. –  Karl Apr 5 '11 at 5:48

The idiom "double-edged sword" is close. It misses the "so desirable that everyone wants to attain it" meaning, but it does convey that it has a positive use.

Edit: Another good term might be "forbidden fruit." In Genesis, it was said to convey great power to its consumer, but it also added a curse to the partakers.

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Always reminds me of Homer Simpson, "mmmm, forbidden doughnut." Forbidden fruit fits very well for certain kinds of curses. –  Potatoswatter Feb 16 '11 at 6:52
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Double-edged sword isn't really it, but "forbidden fruit" is very good. –  J.T. Grimes Feb 16 '11 at 23:48
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+1 forbidden fruit –  crowne Mar 24 '11 at 19:30
    
Forbidden fruit is definitely a good suggestion. (+1) However, I do not think the forbidden fruit in Genesis was considered as treasure by Adam and Eve. They just wanted it so badly. If that makes it treasure, then this is a good metaphor. –  Jimi Oke Mar 28 '11 at 3:32
    
The answer is the Forbidden Fruit. Its an object of desire but you are forbidden from getting it. –  Neeth Mar 28 '11 at 9:37

Further “close-but-no-cigar” ideas:

Golden apple: differs in that the curse comes usually not from possession of it, but from competition to attain it.

Poisoned chalice: another apparently desirable thing that turns out to be cursed; but differs in that this is usually given, rather than sought out for an extended time.

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+1 for poisoned chalice. –  Steve Melnikoff Mar 25 '11 at 12:14

A Monkey's Paw, perhaps?

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The only problem with that is that only a select few are drawn to a Monkey Paw. –  oosterwal Feb 16 '11 at 19:15
    
Really? Don't we all want something that will grant us three wishes? (At least until we find out about that darn curse.) –  J.T. Grimes Feb 16 '11 at 19:53

TVtropes calls it an Artifact Of Doom, but I don't think the term would be understood by anyone not familiar with the site. Also related: Artifact Of Attraction, but that one is a MacGuffin.

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'Artifact of Doom' is close, but it does not require the thing to be highly desired, or a lure, like the Siren's song. Also, Artifact of Doom requires the thing to be physical--the word I'm looking for could also be applied to an idea, a secret knowledge, or philosophy. –  oosterwal Feb 15 '11 at 16:06
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@Oosterwal - you should post "Siren Song" as the answer. –  Chris B. Behrens Feb 15 '11 at 16:15
    
@Chris B. Behrens: Maybe, but a 'Siren Song' is more like bait in a trap rather than a treasure that consumes a person (consuming their every waking thought, then consuming them physically.) –  oosterwal Feb 15 '11 at 16:25
    
Well, you're absolutely right in the sense that it's not a physical object, but it was a treasure in the sense that Odysseus experienced gain from hearing it (we presume). I don't think that there's a perfect answer, at least, not in Western mythology. –  Chris B. Behrens Feb 15 '11 at 16:27
    
In that case, every trap is a treasure for the animal that finds it. –  kiamlaluno Feb 15 '11 at 16:31

Something related to the legend of King Midas perhaps? (Sorry, can't think of a specific term)

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Yes, the curse associated with the Midas touch is another great example. –  oosterwal Feb 15 '11 at 15:58
    
I think "Midas's golden touch" sums it up quite well. –  Erik Kowal May 9 at 3:05

After looking at all the answers that have been given so far, I think the answer to your question is "no".

You could call it an "idol's eye," since there are multiple stories about cursed gemstones that have been stolen from an idol's eye (Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, and looking at this webpage, it seems that this story is also told about the Hope Diamond, the Idol's Eye Diamond, the Orlov Diamond, and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond -- although in Indian legends, the Koh-i-Noor was stolen from the god Krishna).

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'forbidden fruit' is definitely as close as it gets, but it's not a single word plus there are cultural connotations attached to it too (although one would normally expect any English speaker to be aware of them)

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You might try "a genie in a bottle" on for size. It carries the sense of "be careful what you wish for", which is common to all these cases.

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Unintended Consequences can be helpful.

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Black Pearl
Forbidden Fruit / Golden Apple

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Perhaps what you want is a Helen of Troy (who doesn't?), as in

1) I suppose he'll go after that girl. It's too bad, though. She's a Helen-of-Troy.

It might be unusual and a bit of a stretch to use this for nonfeminine things, and indeed google did not turn up any decent results for this kind of usage. But I have to suggest it because (i) I think it fits the meaning beautifully, and (ii) I could argue that it is a single word in the sense that it is a name and cannot be modified as a phrase can.

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protected by RegDwigнt May 26 '11 at 22:04

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