Our previous post, on ‘Ten Words We Got from Literature’ (see http://interestingliterature.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/ten-words-we-got-from-literature/), was so popular with readers that we have decided to write a sequel. We had several great suggestions from readers which we’ve incorporated into this list. As with the previous post, we’re interested only in words which have a definite origin in a literary work. We’re not so interested in cases where the earliest citation of a word probably already in common use (as is often the case with words attributed to Shakespeare) is found in a work of novel, play, or poem. So, here are ten more words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.
1. Nerd. From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. The word is first used to mean ‘geek’ shortly afterwards, later in the 1950s.
2. Trilby. As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier – grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier – published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby – the heroine – and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist. From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn’t feature in the novel itself) and the term ‘svengali’, meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.
This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer – specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word ‘odyssey’, meaning an adventure). Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we’d heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses). In Odysseus’ absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – hence the modern connotation of the word of ‘mentor’ as ‘adviser’.
4. Stentorian. This is also from Homer, but this time, it’s from his other epic poem, The Iliad.
Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective ‘stentorian’, meaning ‘loud and thundering’ (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.
5. Malapropism. From Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. The word ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’, hence Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the meaning of ‘malapropism’, namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. ‘pineapple’ for ‘pinnacle’ in ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’. In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word ‘malapropism’ itself: an office worker had described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (instead of ‘repository’), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ (instead of ‘malapropism’). Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a ‘Dogberryism’, after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John’s evil scheme. ‘Dogberryism’ is attested by the OED from 1836.
I have a NEW Term: “Radio Word:” This is a word which intelligent people will not say aloud for fear of getting it wrong. Only after they hear it on National Public Radio, are they willing to give it a chance. Examples: Clitoris, Uranus, geas. I’m sure people can think of others and send them along. Terry]
- A to Z Challenge – M is for Malapropisms (lynnerevettebutler.com)
- Odysseus Returns Home (olympusnews.wordpress.com)
- Audiobook Review: The Penelopiad (bookclubbabe.net
Neologisms: New Words Since 1960
Fifty Years among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms 1941-1991 (Centennial Series of the American Dialect Society)
Word-coinage: Being An Inquiry Into Recent Neologisms, Also A Brief Study Of Literary Style, Slang, And Provincialisms
Eastwooding With The Mother Flame: The Words of 2012