Fictional Characters, Now Real Words

Scrooge or Pollyanna?

A Pollyanna, or an extreme optimist, and a Scrooge, or curmudgeon, may be as different as night and day, but one thing these nouns have in common is that they both come from characters in beloved books, made into popular movies.

Pollyanna Whittier is an orphan who goes to live with her stern Aunt Polly in Pollyanna, the 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter. Pollyanna’s positive attitude eventually gladdens the hearts of all the unhappy townspeople.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the cold-hearted miser in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. You may recall his favorite phrase: “Bah! Humbug!”

What other fictional characters had such unique personalities that their names became words in the English language? Read on!

Quixotic

The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, tells the tale of Don Quixote, an elderly knight who becomes insane by reading too many romances of chivalry. He sets out on adventures to revive chivalry by defending the helpless and fighting injustice.

The book, published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, is considered a classic of Western literature. The Russian ballet Don Quixote premiered in Moscow in 1869. The musical Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway in 1965.

The adjective quixotic, from the eponymous hero, means extravagantly chivalrous or romantic.

Lolita

In Lolita, a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man, is obsessed with young girls—who he refers to as nymphets. He becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old girl who he nicknames “Lolita.”

Lolita and nymphet are now synonyms used to describe a sexually attractive young girl.

In 1992, Amy Fisher became known as the “Long Island Lolita,” because at the age of 17, she shot her lover’s wife.

Yahoo

Yes, Yahoo! is a well-known web portal and search engine. But it’s also a noun that means an uncultivated or boorish person.

Yahoo! is a backronym—a combination of backward and acronym—for “Yet Another Hierarchically Organized Oracle.” But Yahoo! founders Jerry Yang and David Filo say they chose the name because they liked the slang definition, which comes from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels. Yahoos are human-like creatures that Gulliver encounters in the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver describes the Yahoos as filthy, depraved animals.

Gargantuan

François Rabelais, a French Renaissance writer, physician, monk, and Greek scholar, wrote the satire The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (published in two volumes, in 1532 and 1534). It tells the story of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. Rabelais wrote that on the day Gargantua was born, “it needed 17,913 cows to supply the babe with milk.”

Rabelais contributed two adjectives to the English language. Gargantuan means gigantic and enormous, and it doesn’t just describe a person. We often say it’s a gargantuan task. The less familiar word pantagruelian also means huge or enormous.

Serendipity

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, is credited for coining the term serendipity, an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. In a 1754 letter to Horace Mann describing a link he discovered between two families, Walpole wrote:

“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….”

Serendip, by the way, is a Perso-Arabic name for Sri Lanka, previously called Ceylon.

Malapropism

Mrs. Malaprop is the pompous aunt in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. In the comedy of manners, she frequently misspeaks, using words that are similar in sound but have different meanings.

Here are a couple of examples:

“...promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” (instead of obliterate)

“...she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.” (instead of alligator).

In more recent times, baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was well known for his malapropisms, misusing words ridiculously.

Berra said:

“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (electoral)

“He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.” (ambidextrous)

Milquetoast

Caspar Milquetoast is a comic strip character created in 1924 by H. T. Webster for his cartoon series The Timid Soul, which ran in the “New York World” and later the “Herald Tribune” newspapers.

Webster described Caspar Milquetoast as “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”

By 1930, milquetoast had became a noun used to describe a very timid, unassertive, spineless person.

Micawber

Wilkins Micawber is another fictional character from the imagination of Charles Dickens—this one from his 1850 novel David Copperfield. Micawber is funny, nice, very bad with money and often in debt—and always optimistic that “something will turn up.”

Micawber says: “Welcome poverty! Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!”

No wonder micawber describes a poor person who trusts to fortune.

What fictional character do you think will appear in the dictionary next?