“Fortune is bald behind”

The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:

“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.'”

That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:

‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’

Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’

‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’

‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’

Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?

In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”

10 Responses to “Fortune is bald behind”

  1. Brian Hansen says:

    My interpretation would be something along the lines of eligible meaning attractive, or in other words, qualified to be courted and married.

  2. Michael says:

    Having read this, I feel rather like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole as I try to parse the meaning of heavy-sided lobsters smoking similes! :)

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I think behinds of the lower kind should be bald??? :)

    I just love this expression, Stan and had never heard it before.

    Can hardly wait to use it!


  4. Stan says:

    Brian: Hmm. That’s another possibility.

    Michael: I love that line. It conjures up all manner of imagery!

    WWW: In colder climes I imagine a light covering of fur is appreciated, but I take your point. :-)

  5. marc leavitt says:

    Jack Aubrey was telling Stephen that the expression would probably confuse most people; better perhaps to use something more familiar, less taxing on the auditor’s understanding. I believe the lobsters he’s referring to are soldiers (red coats). I could be wrong; it’s been more than a decade since I read the novel.

  6. languagehat says:

    I’m sure marc is right about the lobsters (my wife and I have just finished the entire series, and are in mourning); as for “eligible,” I presume it’s the OED’s sense 4 “That one would choose or like: Desirable, acceptable, suitable,” but whether that implies he was thinking of the lower behind deponent sayeth not.

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Not to come off as too cheeky (pun intended) here, but inspired by this current anatomically-tending discussion of “bald behind”, I was pondering the adjectival expression, “hairy-assed”, as in “That was a hairy-assed mess you got us into, Ollie!’ *

    For me, “hairy-assed”, translates into meaning wild-and-crazy, perhaps off-the-wall chaotic, or just plain lame-brained.

    *Apologies to the late Stan Laurel who, no doubt, would not have used such bawdy phraseology… at least on screen.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc: That makes sense, and lobsters = soldiers is almost certainly the case. At first I thought it was a reference to the sailors’ sunburnt appearance, then I looked it up in Chambers Slang Dictionary and twigged the military connection.

    Hat: I’ve greatly enjoyed your posts about the series, and noticed that you finished it recently. (I have a long way to go, and my approach is hopelessly sporadic.) Eligible = suitable seems to be the most.. eligible interpretation, though its precise motivation remains a little hazy.

    Alex: Those phrases work when their parts are mixed, too: lame-assed and hair-brained (or more usually hare-brained).

  9. idiomatico says:

    I love proverbs, especially with mythological origins, and discussing their possible meanings.

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