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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

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“Tilting at Windmills”

After doing a brief search and thinking a bit, I cannot come to an answer to the question of what “Tilting at windmills” means or where such a phrase may have come from.

What does “tilting at windmills” mean or symbolize? What are some usages?


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It's from the book "Don Quixote" by Cervantes, summarized, readable and searchable here:

Don Quixote was a knight who at one point in the book took up the lance to fight "giants" ("tilting" refers to engaging another mounted opponent in combat with lances). It is usually assumed, though not completely clear in the book, that Don Quixote thought that the windmills really were the giants.

The phrase is usually used to mean "attacking an imaginary menace."

speedwell2 Dec-03-2004

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Some uses, via Google:

"The United States can ill-afford to be tilting at windmills while Al Qaeda remains at large and able to operate."

"A coworker once compared me to Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, because of my efforts to fix the wrong things around me in society."

"The colorblindistas [a made-up word for people who insist that there is no such thing as differences between races] are tilting at windmills and spinning wrong-headed notions in their lofty towers.... A ban on fact gathering will only propagate fallacies and falsehoods."

"Is Joe Breeze a visionary or just tilting at windmills?"

I've seen some uses that suggest an alternative meaning, something more like "taking on an opponent that you know you cannot beat."

speedwell2 Dec-03-2004

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speedwell is something akin to a diety.

nizou1 Dec-04-2004

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Well, Satan is something akin to a deity, too, but I'm just kidding :) Thanks, nizou, I'm doing this because it is fun. I'm glad you are being helped!

speedwell2 Dec-06-2004

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...and Don Quixote was considering the windmills akin to Satan....
Speedwell it is completely clear in the book what Don was thinking when he was "tilting at windmills." Unless you are agree with me that he is not out of his mind as it usually is accepted.

goossun Dec-06-2004

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Actually, goossun, I do agree. I think he was doing it to dramatically prove a point. I never did get the impression that he had completely lost touch with reality.

speedwell2 Dec-07-2004

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Thanks for the definition of "Tilting at Windmills.

Basil McCormick

ebasilm Dec-09-2004

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Slight variation on the definition of the phrase: the Don is visibly crazy to most of his contemporaries. He doesn't seem to mind going on quests that involve the imaginary and promise little. In some of his overblown imagination, he mistakes windmills for oppressive giants sent by evil enchanters.

Then, as speedwell said, "tilting" is initiating combat, so now put two and two together.

dogshowaddict Jan-23-2005

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I think "Tilting at Windmills" is a story about a man that gets confused between reality and dreams. It can be looked at differently. SOme people refer to it as a romance novel, and others think of it as stupid.

anonymous4 Feb-12-2005

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This saying originated from a book by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, titled "Don Quijote". He attacks windmills because he believes they are giants illusioned as windmills by his archenemy Sabio Freston.
It basically means don't aim for too big or an impossible goal.

the_master_420 Mar-03-2005

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Oh, really?

speedwell2 Mar-08-2005

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I have always thought "Tilting at windmills" was akin to: "pissing in the ocean for the effect you leave"..."fighting a losing battle"...etc.

Am I too far off the mark?

Gary1 Sep-09-2005

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tilting at windmills is almost akin to clutching at strews. desparate measurers for when one is in a jam and will promise the earth to get out of the jam

anonymous4 Nov-16-2005

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Tilting mean fencing...when one tries to fence with a windmill, it is a no-win proposition.

Daveclaw Nov-20-2005

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I would agree with much of what was said below, except that I think that Speedwell's metaphor is too narrow. It is used to describe any attempt or planned attempt at something that is clearly unattainable, dubious, or just plain crazy.

porsche Nov-21-2005

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I appreciate all of these definitions. I have been searching the net and looking in the dictionary for about 30 minutes trying to find the meaning. I get it now. Happy Thanksgiving All!

Pinkie Nov-23-2005

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ı found that don quixote was very annoying and that is why ı did not enjoy the book. don quixote was mental

anonymous4 Dec-03-2005

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In the big book of alcoholics anonymous on page 266 they use phrase tilting at windmills and no one seemed to know what it meant.Now I know thanks to y'all I now know that it would mean something like champing at the bit to conquer the world,like a drunk on a barstool

donaldadams1 Dec-27-2005

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If ya can't tilt at windmills, what can you do?

Big_Dog Jan-03-2006

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I hate that cliche so much. There's only one person who ever used it without sounding like a prat.

Jon2 Jan-03-2006

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well dont keep us in suspense. WHO WAS IT?!

anonymous4 Jan-04-2006

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Miguel_de_Cervantes Jan-05-2006

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"The adjective "quixotic", at present meaning "idealistic and impractical", derives from the protagonist's name, and the expressions "tilting at windmills" and "fighting windmills" come from this story."

Wiki_reader Feb-27-2006

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A pointless noble act.

Felipe Apr-02-2006

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Gary's definition of Tilting at Windmills sounds very accurate to me.
I resigned from an English police force in 1971 after a very sucessful twelve years service, including eight commendations and the attaining of Royal Protection standard.
Gary's definition of "Pissing in the ocean." fits the situation perfectly.
Having recorded every situation of note for the whole of my service, in due course I obviously wrote the book.
Having seen the connection with the original Don Quixote I gave it the title "Tilting at Windmills."
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, showing much more appreciation than the establishment far below her in the pecking order of our nation, very kindly added a copy of "Tilting at Windmills" to her private library, and I have very carefully treasured the letter confirming this information.

harold Apr-08-2006

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I just got back from travels where I was repeatedly ripped off, including to find in the end my camera. So, in attempts to distract myself from my own misery, I decided to hang a very cool painting bought on this trip of Don Quixote walking alone with his faithful nag Rocinante, and reflected upon my own abbreviated version of Quixote's quest as I grappled with accepting what is still unacceptable to me - that my pictures are but memories. Quixote's desire to keep Chivalry alive, if only in his mind - and the lengths he was willing to go to display it - we all have our windmills. My life-long journey has also included tilting at windmills as I'd once fallen into a hopeless state resembling nothing other than a bankrupt idealist, a phrase also used in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. I very much relate to Don Quixote, the crazy bastard.

suzannew.area56 Oct-06-2006

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I have learned more from you guys than I have in 37 years of reading this book Written by a Spanaird, it has been translated into scores and scores of languages, including Quechua, which is over 4000 years old. Operas, paintings, songs, ballets, books- you name the art form. Ten years in the making. I think he knew his work was visionary; about trying to decipher the meaning of life itself. One piece of the puzzle. Just my opinion. Thanks, guys.

hanlon Nov-14-2006

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I've used that expression my entire life with nothing more than a vague idea of what it really meant - fortunately, I've used it correctly. However, on a humorous note, my 19-year-old daughter and I have taken to "tilting" (leaning to the side) when we see a windmill - a personal, inside joke with us that never fails to get laughs. Thanks for the clarification. It's nice to know I'm not the only crazy one in the world.

Urd-chan Aug-23-2007

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I really enjoyed reading everyones point of view. I have a test on this "tilting of the windmills" tomorrow. I only had an excerpt from the story in my textbook. I thank Quijote was truly going insane, but aren't we all?

Lisa1 Oct-29-2007

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I think that actually "Tilting at Windmills" is something that most of us do at some time or other.Usually like Quixote not very successfully.

But it is always worth a try anyway, it is like a tilt at the establishment itself, perhaps you may not win, but you can very often tilt it just a little bit.

As a very wise man, my own Tutor and great friend said a long time ago, "Start at the top and work your way down, it is faster and far more efficient than beginning at the bottom and waiting forever for a result.

harold May-24-2008

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Ten things we did not know last week, understatement itself?

I am afraid that there are an awful lot more than ten things that we did not know last week, but even more this week that we really did not want to know at all.

Yet two more things that we must know quite soon; are an end to the diabolically proposed, elasticated taxation of the urban commuter, and the release of sound plans to put the economy of our country on a course of financial recovery.

As there must be superior brainpower somewhere to that on display at the moment, perhaps the BBC or perhaps someone else could be a real leader; and propose a brand new competition with decent prizes for projects and proposals submitted with a view to economically solving at least a few of our problems.

Throwing our cash and subsidies in the same old directions is most certainly not a lasting solution, it is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Once again; Paul and his friends the more-cats are much too fat already, and surely we have heard enough regarding the two overpaid idiots who have hogged the television and the media in general for the last ten days?

anonymous4 Nov-01-2008

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Wanted Don Quixote, newly qualified lawyer etc, willing to sue multi billionaire company for 50% of the award in a small claims court, has great advertising potential for a newbie, win or lose.

This Company is ripping off pensioners and the vulnerable by damaging private property and avoiding compensation.

Success potential and evidence good but obviously not guaranteed perfect,

Any offers of assistance welcome.

harold Nov-02-2008

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Isn't it always interesting that there is an elitist component to much of preceding language development, including metaphors, similes and more. just as this Quixote quote exemplifies, yet there is a current, and possibly, I believe continuing inverse elitism prevalent now; kudos are attracted in music, movies, dance, entertainment et al by the more obvious, blatantly deplorable, gross and intentionally offensive as a terminology can be, which future readers may need help in unraveling just as is happening here now?

'tilting" in this context means "jousting" i.e. "fighting with a lance". Don Quixote sees (delusionally) the windmills as giants , so 'tilting at windmills" means fighting imaginary enemies. Over time it has aquired the additional meaning of fighting futile idealistic battles.

mary cameron Jul-22-2011

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You have all basically got the gist of it, but it might be helpful to know that in the original, Spanish version of the book, it really said "attacking windmills".

The translation came through as tilting at, but I think it makes a lot of sense to think of it as attacking windmills.

JJL9 Dec-29-2011

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"Tilting At Windmills" - The foregoing explanations have inspired me to use Don Quixote and "Rocinante" in a whimsical painting, use it in a way to give joy to friends that are still searching and reaching for the stars (at advanced ages). Some may get there! Futile idealistic battles......maybe!

J. P. Bain Jul-29-2013

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I interpret the concept of " Tilting at Windmills ", in the context of Don Quixote as a preambulary salute via his lance toward his adversaries both real and imagined , without regard of their intent , as an act of chivalry - while conceding the contest may be futile at best ... i.e...fighting the invincible foe , ect.

Notawow Oct-27-2016

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It refers to the book Don Quixote, in which Quixote sword fights with windmills.

user109220 Oct-05-2020

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