Neil Gaiman in his book "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" writes (this is a character speaking):

“And here was I, repaying ill with good, for I made you food and a fire. I am a hard man to lose, Calum MacInnes, and it ill becomes a guide to do as you did today. Now, take your dirk from my throat and let me sleep.”

What does this exactly mean: "I am a hard man to lose, Calum MacInnes, and it ill becomes a guide to do as you did today." - could you please rewrite it in simpler terms? It would be very helpful if you also could re-interpret completely 1st and 2nd sentences.

  • @FumbleFingers it is asked on this forum and leads to discussions.
    – ILie
    Oct 27, 2015 at 18:50
  • The learners site was only in "beta" mode back then, so migration of questions wasn't an option. If you truly believe you (and ELU itself) are better served by posting questions like this here, I don't suppose there's anything I can say that will make you change your mind. But I don't see how ELL can be expected to thrive if its target user base insist on posting elsewhere. Oct 27, 2015 at 20:29

1 Answer 1


The phrase ill becomes is an idiom that is related to this meaning of become

Be appropriate or suitable to (someone): minor celebrity status did not become him

Oxford Dictionaries Online

The phrase is similar in meaning to ill suited. In context, it means that the conduct being discussed is not well suited to a guide. In effect a good guide does not behave that way.

A recasting of the sentences in simpler (and more modern and less elegant) form might be:

And I was treating you well, even though you treated me badly (ill), for I made you food and a built a fire for you. I am a hard man to lose (and I can track you down), Calum MacInnes, and what you did today was not appropriate for a guide. Now, take your knife (dirk) away from my throat and let me sleep.

  • +1 Thanks this is a very good explanation. Sorry I cannot accept - not enough rep yet. Maybe if people vote it up then I get rep. and accept it.
    – Vitaliy Kaurov
    Oct 27, 2015 at 18:25
  • This Google ngram shows that the phrase had its heyday in the 1750s. . goo.gl/UqukUT - You won't see it much in 2015 Oct 27, 2015 at 18:29
  • @chaslyfromUK As I suggested, clearly not a very modern usage.
    – bib
    Oct 27, 2015 at 18:30
  • It also seems to me that modern usage would be "and it ill DOES NOT becomes a guide" if you interpret it as "not appropriate for a guide" ? Or am I misunderstanding ? I think I am getting confused with 2 usages of "ill" - I think they are the same "bad thing" mentioned twice. But it looks like 2nd "ill" is foe negation like "ill becomes" meaning "does not become" or "hardly shoes you in a good light".
    – ILie
    Oct 27, 2015 at 18:52
  • 1
    @ILie No. In this context ill means badly or not well. It badly suites a guide . . . It ill becomes a guide . . .
    – bib
    Oct 27, 2015 at 18:56

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