Kafkaesque

[ kahf-kuh-esk ]
/ ˌkɑf kəˈɛsk /

adjective

of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka: the Kafkaesque terror of the endless interrogations.
marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity: Kafkaesque bureaucracies.

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Origin of Kafkaesque

1945–50 Kafka + -esque
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

VOCAB BUILDER

What does Kafkaesque mean?

Kafkaesque is used to describe situations that are disorientingly and illogically complex in a surreal or nightmarish way.

Kafkaesque comes from the name of author Franz Kafka, who lived from 1883 to 1924. It can be used to describe any situation or literature that resembles his work, which often involves characters navigating bizarre bureaucracies (unnecessarily complicated government systems full of confusing and contradictory procedures and paperwork).

Example: I had a nightmare about trying to get my driver’s license at the DMV that was positively Kafkaesque—I had to fill out 18 forms in a language I didn’t understand, and the clerk was a giant lobster.

Where does Kafkaesque come from?

The first records of Kafkaesque come from the 1940s. It’s formed from Kafka’s name and the suffix esque, which indicates a style, resemblance, or distinctive character. It’s just one of the ways we make adjectives out of people’s names. Other common examples are Shakespearean, meaning “in the style of Shakespeare,” or Orwellian, which refers to literature or a situation resembling the literary work of George Orwell or the dystopia in his novel 1984.

Most of Kafka’s writing wasn’t published until after his death. His day job was in the insurance business. In Kafka’s books and stories, notably the novel The Trial, characters are always dealing with bureaucracies in which things are absurdly complicated and even the bureaucrats themselves don’t seem to know the reasons for all the red tape.

In real life, people often apply the word Kafkaesque to situations that have similar elements, like navigating the healthcare system or attempting to reach a real, live customer service agent over the phone. However, as frustrating as these situations may be, Kafkaesque is traditionally reserved for scenarios that have a fantastic or surreal element, like many of Kafka’s works did. (In his story “The Metamorphosis,” a salesman wakes up one day to discover that he has turned into a giant insect.) Something that’s Kafkaesque is often somehow both nightmarish and mundane, especially because it involves the kind of overly complex procedures we have to deal with all the time.

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What are some words that share a root or word element with Kafkaesque?

What are some words that often get used in discussing Kafkaesque?

 

How is Kafkaesque used in real life?

Kafkaesque is used by literary-minded people, as well as those who’ve never read any of Kafka’s stories. It’s often applied to situations involving some kind of frustrating bureaucracy.

 

 

Try using Kafkaesque!

Is Kafkaesque used correctly in the following sentence?

Going through airport security today was Kafkaesque—everything went smoothly with no unnecessary stops.

Example sentences from the Web for kafkaesque