July 31, 2014

Words from literary characters


"What's in a name?"

“What’s in a name?”

William Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name?” and 420 (or so) years later, The Guardian has answered “kind of a lot, actually.” The publication went through literary history and found names of characters that have, literally, taken on a meaning of their own. The list ranges from the obvious to terms I’ve never heard before (maybe they just didn’t make it over during the British Invasion); still, what they’ve uncovered is surprisingly illuminating.

For example, “Frankenstein” had a dictionary meaning only a few years after the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. It was a verb, meaning “to assemble from disparate parts,” which is wonderful for many reasons, including that it does not conflate Dr. Frankenstein’s monster with its creator. Presently, of course, the word is mostly reduced to a prefix—frakenfood, etc.

The most commonly used word on the list is “mentor,” which apparently comes from a character in Homer’s Odyssey. He was an advisor to Odysseus, which I knew, but I had always assumed Homer just wanted it to be really clear about this character’s role. But that’s what I get for assuming.

Far and away the best entry, though, is “Gargantuan.” From The Guardian:

“Gargantua was the name of a giant created by François Rabelais in a series of bawdy 16th-century comic novels, notably La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, or The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua (1534). The books are well known for their coarseness and their crude humour: Gargantua is born with a yard-long erection and immediately demands a pint of ale to drink, while his mother, having already endured an 11-month pregnancy, demands his father be castrated to prevent him from impregnating her ever again. The adjective gargantuan, literally referring to anything of Gargantua’s size, first appeared in the late 1500s, while a related (and criminally underused) noun gargantuism has been used to mean “an enormously extravagant but impractical idea” since the mid-19th century.”

Who said tracing words back to their origins couldn’t be fun?