Word Nerd: 8 English Words Inspired by Literary Characters

24 Oct

New words are constantly entering a language. Especially if that language is English (The Oxford English Dictionary adds approximately 1000 words each year). Words can be added by way of catastrophic wars, technological inventions, or simple and persistent mispronunciation.

Quite often, the new words which are added are “authorisms” – which Paul Dickson defines as a word coined by an author or journalist. Many literary greats have added to the treasure trove of English words with their coinage. Leading the ranks is John Milton (love-lorn, padlock, liturgical, debauchery), followed by the likes of Ben Jonson, John Donne, and of course, the Bard.

To state the obvious, not only do writers and poets coin words for objects, experiences and feelings, they also do so for their characters. Sometimes, the names of these characters linger in the mass consciousness. They become adjectives or titles which we use to describe or define people.

For today’s Word Nerd, we have a list of 8 English words which came from literary characters. Read and enjoy.

1)    Bluebeard: violent womanizer; a man who murders his wives.
In 1697, a Frenchman named Charles Perrault wrote a collection of fairytales in which Duke Bluebeard first appeared. The Duke would murder and marry and murder and marry. So, his name became synonymous with criminal misogyny.

2)    Brainiac: genius; exceptionally intelligent.
Brainiac is a true-to-his-name enemy of Superman obsessed with knowledge. He first appeared as a character in 1958, and was created by authors Al Plastino and Otto Binder. We would like to clarify that to be a brainiac, you no longer have to qualify as the enemy of a Spandex-clad superhero. Having extra brain cells is enough.

3)    Gargantuan: huge; enormous.
Francois Rabelais was a French monk who, in 1534, wrote “The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua.” The lead is, you guessed it, a character named Gargantua, who is affable, gluttonous and bawdy.  But, first and foremost, he is a giant. Hence the adjectival derivations of his name.
Example: You know what Donald Trump’s hands are not? Gargantuan.


Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes

4)    Goody-Two-Shoes: a person who puts on a show of goodness to make an impression.
A poor orphan girl in a children’s novel, published by John Newberry in 1765, who goes from wearing one shoes to two. And then lets everyone hear about it. She later becomes a teacher and marries a rich widower. We bet no one heard the end of that either.

5)    Grinch: spoilsport; killjoy.
One of Dr. Seuss’s creations, who first appeared in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The Grinch is a reclusive resident of Whoville, who wants to first spoil and then understand the spirit of Christmas. He is frequently ranked one of the top cartoon characters of all time. We wonder if that makes him less Grinch-y.

6)    Lothario: a man who is selfish in his relationships with women.
In ‘The Cruel Brother’ (1630), a play by William Davenant, Lothario is a “frantic gallant.” We can only shudder at what that means. A Lothario appears in a similar capacity in Nicholas Rowe’s ‘The Fair Penitent’ in 1703.
Inconstancy has been a constant through the ages.

7)    Malapropism: using one word in place of a similar sounding one by mistake.
Mrs. Malaprop is a character in Richard Sheridan’s play – ‘The Rivals’. The lady is given to twisting phrases by propping them up with the wrong word – using oracular instead of vernacular, and pineapple instead of pinnacle (“pineapple of politeness”). These delicious phrases are malapropisms. Are you guilty of any?

8)    Mentor: a trusted advisor, generally older and/or senior.
This word is of Greek origin because the character is Greek. Mentor mentors Odysseus in Odyssey (Need to read that again? We’ll wait). While the character might have first appeared in the 8th century BC, the word began to be commonly used in English only around the 1700s.

Any other literary characters whose names you use to describe and define people on a daily basis?
Email us or leave a comment below! Check out previous Word Nerd posts here!

By Skendha Singh

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