Tilting at windmills – Meaning and Origin

Have you ever gotten super angry, upset, annoyed, or sad about something? Have you ever found the thing which puts you in such a terrible mood is nothing that you should have worried too much about? If you’ve ever done this (and I sure as Hell know I have), you could say that you were “tilting at windmills”.

“Tilting at windmills” means that you’re attacking imaginary enemies. It originally comes from a famous book “The ingenious knight of La Mancha”.

In this article, I want to talk about this book, why people were “tilting at windmills” in it, where you can use this phrase, and it isn’t but should be used more often.

What is the origin of Tilting at windmills?

About the book

“The ingenious Knight of La Mancha” is an incredibly popular book in the Spanish language. For most Spanish people, this book has the same significance as “pride and prejudice” “1984” or “to kill a mockingbird”.

This story follows the adventures of Don Quixote, a knight who fights injustice through chivalry. Think of him as being a Spanish version of Sir Lancelot. Or maybe even an older version of superman.

Remember, back then, knights were the heroes of their day, and many would enjoy telling stories about them and the adventures they would go on.

About the story

In this story, one of the main characters sees windmills, but because it’s dark, they can’t see properly, and they think that the windmills are giants, they mistake the sails for arms.

Believing that the right thing to do would be to slay the creatures, he goes charging at them, but when he gets to them, he realises they aren’t giants, but merely windmills.

It’s fair to say that Don Quixote has a good laugh about this.

Back then “tilting” was another way of saying “jousting”. And we’ll get onto what that is later in this article.

About the Author

The book was written by a Spanish author called “Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra”. Think of him as being a bit like the Spanish version of Shakespeare.

Unlike many other famous authors from his time, he did not have a great life with Butlers and plenty of money, he actually grew up in poverty. During his life, he spent a lot of time poor and in debt.

It wasn’t until he discovered his love and talent for writing that he managed to get out of that situation and make a name for himself. Back then, going from rags to riches was even more challenging than it is today.

What is jousting?​

As time goes on, many sports go out of popularity and make way for new ones. Today, the only place you’ll be likely to see jousting is at a renaissance fair.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see a jousting match live, allow me to explain how it works. This is a sport that knights would often play to show off their skills. It would take place on horseback, using “jousting swords”.

The knights would sit on top of their horses and charge at each other with their swords. These words are much longer than most regular swords. The aim of the game is to knock your opponent off their horse.

When can you use the phrase “Tilting at windmills”?

Romance

I’m sure that every one of us has done some somewhat questionable things when we had feelings for other people.

The most common example is probably when someone we’re talking to, but are not in a committed relationship with is also talking to someone else. When this happens, it can feel like cheating, but the fact is that it isn’t and if this person is not with you, they are not under any obligation to be with you and only you.

You could also apply “tilting at windmills” for those times when your partner seems to be flirting with someone when they’re actually just being friendly.

Work

It can also be used when talking about your work life. When you have any job, we’re inevitably going to make mistakes.

One day, your boss might say to you “When you’re working on any document, make sure to always put the date at the top of the page”. You might interpret this as “you’re terrible at your job and you can’t even do the most basic task”.

But that’s not what your boss meant, all they meant was “you need to put the date at the top of every page”.

Social life

Humans are social creatures, and as a result, we want to be liked by other people. But part of wanting to be liked can be to always assume that people don’t like us or look down upon us.

A lot of the time, people will just be shy, and not much of a talker, but when we “tilt at windmills” we could interpret this as them not liking us.

I’m gonna burst your bubble, most people will like you. You probably don’t need to worry.

Should we tilt at windmills?

We do

Throughout this article, I’ve spoken about “tilting at windmills” in a rather negative tone. And while it’s not something I would encourage, I have to admit, I do have a habit of doing it myself.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of because we all do it. Sometimes, assuming things are worse than they are is natural, perhaps even part of the survival instinct that’s built into us.

Think of it this way. Imagine if the knights had assumed they were just windmills, but they were actually giants. If that had happened, then the giants would have caused havoc.

We should

One criticism of telling people that they’re tilting at windmills is that what matters to one person might not matter to someone else. And if something is bothering us, we should voice our opinion and let it be known.

In this day, more and more people realise the importance of mental health. Part of having good mental health is learning what annoys or upsets us. We should never be ashamed of how we feel, no matter how petty it may seem to some.

So maybe it is okay to sometimes tilt at windmills?

We shouldn’t

But I want to offer a counter-criticism.

To say that you shouldn’t tilt at windmills is not to say that you should never complain about anything. But in this life, there are going to be many things that go wrong, and we can’t be furious at everything.

If we spend all our time being angry, we won’t have any time to spend on doing the things we actually enjoy doing. Sometimes, it can be better to pick your battles and only get angry at the things that are worth getting mad about.

Don’t burn your house down because you spilt some milk.

Usage of Tilting at windmills

Why it’s not used

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, Cervantes, the man who came up with this phrase was not English, was Spanish.

Since most of you reading this are not going to be Spanish, it’s improbable that you learnt about his works. Particularly not at school.

Because in English speaking countries, most of you will have focused mainly on Shakespeare. Which to be honest does make sense.

And it wouldn’t make sense to teach his work in English schools, because there are certain nuances to the Spanish language that you don’t get in English. And the same is true the other way round.

Why it should be

But I’m here to vouch for “tilting at windmills” and say that it should be used far more often than it is. In my opinion, it’s a great phrase.

The use of the word “tilting” goes to show real anger and rage, one that we often feel when we’re in such a situation. Not to mention the book and the author are worth learning about, even if we’ll never have a full understanding of their impact.

There’s something so powerful about talking about knights when using everyday language.

Alternatives to “Tilting at windmills”

Even if we don’t say “tilting at windmills”, there are other phrases that have similar meanings that we tend to use more often.

“Making a mountain out of a molehill” is a great use of comparison. You’re looking at a tiny molehill and thinking it’s a mountain.

“His bark is worse than his bite” is used when talking about people. It’s saying that someone seems intimidating but is actually harmless.

To “blow something out of proportion” means to make it seem worse than it is.

And if you “make a song and dance out of something” you’re paying too much attention to it.

Conclusion

To “tilt at windmills” means to attack imaginary enemies, it’s when you think of something as being far worse than it actually is.

It’s a phrase that comes from a famous Spanish author “Cervantes”. In his book “The ingenious knight of La Mancha”, the main character “Don Quixote” has a partner who attacks windmills thinking they’re giants.

Even though it’s incredibly old, and from Spanish, it’s a phrase that can be applied to most English speakers, be that in their work, romantic, or social life.

Even though we all do it, it’s best to avoid it as much as we can. Because life is too short to tilt at windmills.

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