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Why is Alistair Darling quoting Guy Fawkes?

Men wearing Guy Fawkes masks

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Revealing his plans to head off a long-lasting recession, Chancellor Alistair Darling said these were exceptional times that required exceptional measures. Does he know he's quoting a man who tried to blow up Parliament?

The times we are living in are quite exceptional, don't you know. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling told us so in Monday's pre-Budget report, using what is rapidly becoming the phrase du jour.

In recent weeks the line "exceptional times that required exceptional measures" has been delivered by his boss Gordon Brown. By Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission. And by the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King.

Gordon Brown: "Extraordinary times require extraordinary action"

It's a well-known phrase and the variations are plentiful. As well as exceptional, times are often desperate, drastic or extreme, and can require action as well as measures. We all get the drift, but where does the phrase come from?

While no original source is credited, the origins of the saying go back centuries and it is very similar to the Latin Extremis malis extrema remedia. This translates as "extreme remedies for extreme ills".

The earliest English records date back to the mid 16th Century, when it was a popular proverb, says Elizabeth Knowles, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. And like today, there were lots of variations.

"That's how the proverbial usually works - you get a sense and a balance of the meaning but the words might differ slightly," she says. "In this case it always means an unusual response to an unusual need."

To be or...

The proverb was also used by Shakespeare about the turn of the 17th Century. In Hamlet he wrote: "Diseases desperate grown, by desperate alliances are relieved, or not at all."

It was most famously used about the same time by a man who was not a fan of politicians - Guy Fawkes. He tried to wipe out King James I and his entire government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare put the phrase in Hamlet's mouth

When questioned by the King and council immediately after his arrest on 6 November, 1605, he reportedly said: "Desperate diseases require desperate measures."

Use of the word "exceptional" in the saying dates from the end of the 19th Century, says Ms Knowles.

"It can be traced back to a parliamentary debate," she says. "It seems the word 'exceptional' is used mainly in legal or political fields."

The reason such phrases become so ubiquitous is because they add some sort of literary weight to a speech, says the Oxford University lexicographer, Charlotte Brewer.

"Such sayings act as pithy pearls of wisdom, they're basically very early soundbites. By quoting them people are tapping into a cultural tradition. The sayings are seen as respectable and people accept them as a piece of received wisdom."

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