2

There are two main or obvious possible reasons:

  1. Achilles died of a wound to the heel, from a poisoned arrow shot by Paris/Alexander. This is sometimes fabled to be the only spot where he could be wounded, thanks to a magical invulnerability elsewhere due to immersion in the Styx (which failed to wet his heel because his goddess mother was holding him by that part).
  2. Achilles pierced the slain body of Hector between this tendon and the underlying bones (tibia and fibula) so as to pass through the thongs by which he dragged the body behind his chariot.

The first would seem to be the more popular notion, but it is completely un-Homeric—the invulnerability thing in particular would make nonsense of Iliad 18, and neither epic mentions the wound in the heel at all—while the second is authentically Homeric (Iliad 22.395–404).

Brewer’s 1898 (courtesy of Bartleby) is no help, nor is Free Dictionary, and Wikipedia hedges its bets (and ignores the question in Talk). OED cites the following, which clearly favors #1, but nowhere casts its authority behind that origin-story:

1703 tr. P. Dionis Anat. Humane Bodies Improv’d ii. x. 422 That String is call’d the Tendon of Achilles, because, ’tis said, he dy’d of a Wound in that Part.

P.S.: Irene, commenting on a question regarding whether the expression needs an apostrophe, alleged that the Greek origin involved the adjective Ἀχίλλειος, but Liddell & Scott indicate that the tendon in question was simply called ὁ τένων ὁ ὀπίσθιος, the rear tendon, while their entry for Ἀχίλλειος does not mention any tendon. Wikipedia traces the expression to a decade before the OED example previously given:

The oldest-known written record of the tendon being named for Achilles is in 1693 by the Flemish/Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen. In his widely used text Corporis Humani Anatomia, Chapter XV, page 328, he described the tendon's location and said that it was commonly called “the cord of Achilles”, now also called “tendo achillies” by anatomists. (“quae vulgo dicitur chorda Achillis”)

  • As it is used in language today, Achilles heel is derived from the (1) reason you have listed. It refers to a fatal flaw or weakness. I don't know the original intent, but that is what it has unequivocally come to mean. – Ian MacDonald Mar 17 '15 at 15:42
  • @IanMacDonald - the phrase certainly means fatal flaw or weakness today, but that doesn't tell us where it derived this meaning, which is the question at hand here. – Ghopper21 Mar 17 '15 at 15:48
  • @Ghopper21: this is precisely why I left a comment instead of an answer. – Ian MacDonald Mar 17 '15 at 15:56
  • @IanMacDonald - I'm tripping up on your use of the word "derived." If we knew that the phrase derived from (1) then the answer to the question would be (1), no? – Ghopper21 Mar 17 '15 at 16:05
  • @Ghopper21, Because it could have originally held the meaning from (2), then in a game of telephone lasting many centuries, that meaning was lost and people came to understand it as (1). As I said, I do not know the original meaning. – Ian MacDonald Mar 17 '15 at 16:12
2

The legend about Achilles heel is at the origin of the expression Achilles tendon:

Achilles tendon:

  • or heel cord, also known as the calcaneal tendon (Latin: Tendo calcaneus), is a tendon of the back of the leg, and the thickest in the human body. It serves to attach the plantaris, gastrocnemius (calf) and soleus muscles to the calcaneus (heel) bone. These muscles, acting via the tendon, cause plantar flexion of the foot at the ankle, and flexion at the knee.

  • "Achilles heel", referring to a vulnerability, relates to the mythical story of Achilles, who was slain during the Trojan war by a poisoned arrow to his heel.

  • In his Metamorphoses, Ovid suggested that Achilles had a vulnerable spot on his body; but the Roman poet, Statius (c. A.D. 45-96), was the first to imply in a poem that it was his heel. (Wikipedia)

Achilles tendon: (etymonline)

  • from Modern Latin tendo Achillis, first used by German surgeon Heister and so-called in reference to the one vulnerable spot of the great Greek hero Achilles, whose mother held him by the heel when she dipped him in the River Styx to render him invulnerable (though this story is not in Homer and not found before 1c. C.E.). Earlier Achilles' sinew, from Modern Latin chorda Achillis, coined 1693 by Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyden when dissecting his own amputated leg. Hence figurative use of heel of Achillies for "vulnerable spot" (1810).

enter image description here

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Having hobbled with my cane over to the reference section of my university library—for there is a good reason why this question arose in my mind—I can add the authority of Ernest Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 2 Vols. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966). – Brian Donovan Mar 18 '15 at 17:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.