7 Words with Real Character


Sometimes a character from a book is so memorable and specific that his or her name finds its way into the English lexicon with a range of uses and applications that extend far beyond its story of origin. Quixotic is one of those terms. It comes from Don Quixote, the protagonist of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece of the same name about a delusional would-be knight-errant who roams the countryside in search of adventure. Alluding to Quixote’s defining qualities, the adjective quixotic means “extravagantly chivalrous or romantic,” also “impulsive and often rashly unpredictable.”


Bovarism comes from the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Throughout the book, the eponymous heroine, Emma Bovary, fantasizes about a more luxurious and sophisticated life than the one she leads. Thus, bovarism means “an exaggerated, especially glamorized, estimate of oneself.”


This term is not derived from the name of a character, per se, but a place that in turn gave its name to a group of characters. Brobdingnag is the name of the fictional land in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where everything is of enormous proportions. Thus, Brobdingnagian can refer to one of the gigantic denizens of that land, or to any sort of giant. It can also be used as an adjective to mean “of huge size; gigantic.”


This silly-sounding word comes from a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit named Seth Pecksniff. Pecksniff is an unscrupulous architect who takes advantage of his students by passing off their designs as his own and profiting from them. Despite this, Pecksniff believes he is morally superior and is providing a beneficial service. Thus, the adjective Pecksniffian means “hypocritically and unctuously affecting benevolence or high moral principles.”


A malapropism is a verbal blunder in which words that are similar in sound are misused to a humorous or ridiculous effect, such as the line “Well, that was a cliff-dweller” spoken by baseball player, coach, and manager Wes Westrum of a close baseball game. The term comes from a character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals named Mrs. Malaprop who has a habit of bungling her words.


Like Brobdingnagian, Lilliputian comes from Gulliver’s Travels. Lilliput is the name of the imaginary country in this classic novel that is inhabited by people who are approximately six inches tall. Thus, the adjective Lilliputian means “extremely small; tiny” and, by extension, “petty; trivial.”


A Pickwickian statement or turn of phrase is one that is meant or understood in a different sense than the usual one, particularly if the term would ordinarily be considered offensive. The word comes from the name of the lead character in Charles Dickens novel The Pickwick Papers, Samuel Pickwick, a good-natured but naive fellow who frequently uses conventionally offensive words with the warmest of intentions. The term Pickwickian can also be used to describe people who, like Mr. Pickwick, display a combination of generosity and naivete or simplicity.

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Word of the Day

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Word of the day

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